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Wisconsin Needs To Say The Public Trust Should Not Be For Sale

March 26, 2017

Regardless of how one aligns politically there is agreement that some changes to the process of how government operates would be a benefit to all.  One such idea is being advanced in Wisconsin to prohibit legislators from becoming lobbyists for at least a year after they leave office.   Republican State Senator Duey Stroebel and Democratic Assemblyman Dana Wachs should be applauded for authoring the bill, as should the 40 other state lawmakers who understand the wisdom of showing support.

The role of lobbyist influence and the revolving door in government is not a new issue up for discussion.  But we are late to the table when it comes to dealing with former legislators trading their elected job for one as a lobbyist in our state.  At least 34 other states already have what’s known as a “revolving door prohibition” on legislators immediately registering as lobbyists.   It is not only that others have made such a law in their states that should encourage us, but the facts themselves which points out to us the reasons as to why this is the way to proceed.

Ironically in Wisconsin state law prohibits state employees and officials from becoming lobbyists within a year but doesn’t impose the same restriction on lawmakers.  I can hear the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live smirking “Isn’t that special?”

I am not out to make the lobbying industry into a bunch of tawdry folks who undermine democracy.  I fully understand that citizens of all stripes are represented and their feelings expressed by the paid spokespeople for a wide array of causes.

What I do want to see eliminated, however, is the perception and at times outright action, that makes the public question if a legislator is cashing in on their service.   It does send wrong signals when elected officials can serve the people one day and then step through the revolving door and serve special interests the next.

Many years ago in an after-hours conversation I was told by a lobbyist–someone I truly respected–that the state legislature is akin to a graduate school to groom future lobbyists.    Consider that the voters elect a public official they believe will go to Madison to serve the constituents along with the best interests of our state.  But the legislative process allows for special insights and relationships with their colleagues that then make them valuable to lobbying firms and special interests.

While we all should desire legislators to become schooled in a wide variety of issues and also form working collegiality with others they should not be considered the farm team for special interests.   There is no need to remind my readers that those interests are more than willing to pay handsomely for that gained knowledge.  It is easy to grasp why legislators would turn from their taxpayer paid salary, which is limited, to a position that allows for a substantial raise in the private field of lobbying.

For those of us who are concerned about the process of government this is very problematic.  It is possible that special-interest groups would make promises of future jobs if elected officials were to shepherd favorable legislation through the committee process.

My feelings are grounded in some admittedly long-ago class on civics–and yet those lessons stick with me.  I happen to think that the bond which exists between an elected one and the people should be respected.  The public gives elected officials the opportunity to serve–and it is a mighty high honor.  But the knowledge gained from that opportunity is a public trust.

I know the phrase ‘public trust’ is something that likely is to be more laughed at than honored.  Yet I think that trust should not be bought and sold or used against the public interest.

So hats off to Stroebel and Wachs for trying to close the revolving door.  Simply put, the potential promise of financial gain should not be used to influence Wisconsin’s legislation.  Let our state join with the majority of others in affirming what my civics teacher, Mr. Winn, would surely say “the public trust should not be for sale.”

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