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Capital City Sunday: Shift in rent relief, Dems push for campaign finance reform

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MADISON (WKOW) -- When the Centers for Disease Control issued a new, targeted two-month eviction moratorium, it shifted who was calling into the Tenant Resource Center.

Executive Director Robin Sereno said while calls and applications doubled last Monday when it appeared the previous moratorium had ended, the calls and applications kept coming the rest of the week -- but now it was the landlords seeking more of the federal relief money to cover the next two months.

"We're really seeing a large, large increase in landlord applications so our assumption with that is landlords understand this moratorium has been extended and rent is due," Sereno said. "They're trying to get those applications in as quickly as they can."

Sereno noted the process of applying can be frustrating for renters and landlords alike since the program could be administered by the state, county, or city depending on where someone lives.

"I think the easiest thing is, literally, to Google 'rental assistance' and your county and to see where it sends you," Sereno said.

Sereno added another confusing aspect of the program is different governments have set different rules for what applicants can and cannot seek in their applications.

"Each of those programs have different things they can pay for," Sereno said. "So, in Dane County, we can only pay for back-owed rent whereas in some other places, they're paying for utility bills to utility companies, internet, and forward rent."

Sereno said the best thing people can do is find out which agency in their community is administering relief dollars and make sure they know what uses the dollars are good for.

Campaign Finance Reform Revisited

Democrats in the legislature are taking another shot at campaign finance reform, introducing six bills Tuesday that would restore or place new restrictions on campaign donations.

One bill would lower the maximum contribution for individual statewide office holders, like governor or supreme court justice, from $20,000 to $10,000. Another would ban Political Action Committees from coordinating on ads with candidates and parties.

Democrats are also pursuing a bill that would make donors disclose the name of their employer if they give more than $100. Another bill calls for an advisory referendum where voters would say whether they support overturning Citizens United, the SCOTUS ruling that finds money is a form of political speech.

"Most of us believe that all Americans, no matter who we are or no matter how much money we make or where we're from, should have an equal voice and an equal say in our democracy," said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), who is a co-sponsor on several of the bills.

Rick Esenberg, President of the conservative legal group, Wisconsin Law and Liberty, argued the idea of dollars driving electoral outcomes is overblown. He pointed to former President Donald Trump's success in overcoming the GOP establishment in the 2016 primary before making the party his own.

He also argued it was also an ethical concern to have lawmakers determining the reach of political messages.

"We typically don't want politicians making the rules about who can criticize them and when and by how much," Esenberg said.

Subeck argued the influence of money is abundantly clear in the legislature. She used the 'dark store loophole' bill as an example of the sway the state's biggest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, wields at the Capitol.

The current policy allows big companies to set their property taxes in busy areas based on the rates of vacant sites in less populated areas.

Previous bills had widespread bipartisan sponsorship but never went up for votes before the full legislature.

"The Republican leadership, as the gatekeepers right now while they have the majority, will not allow bills that Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce opposes go through," Subeck said. "And that is the very undue influence of that big money in politics."

Regarding Citizens United, Esenberg said regulating money as a form of speech in politics should be held to a similar standard to how money applies to speech elsewhere in the legal system.

"If I told you you have a constitutional right to a lawyer but you're not free to spend your money on a lawyer, well it wouldn't be much of a constitutional right," he said.

Powering Politics

The grandest structure shared by all Wisconsinites, the State Capitol building, runs up a costly electric bill each month.

Perhaps, that should come as no surprise given its approximately 40,000 light bulbs to illuminate and central air to heat and cool 525,000 square feet of space - to say nothing of the volume that comes with a nearly 300-foot dome.

What might come as a surprise is the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw more than 300 days pass without lawmakers approving any bills and the building closed to the general public for more than 400 days, had no discernible impact on the electric bills.

27 News obtained the last 36 months of the Capitol's utility bills via an open records request. The bills at first revealed some surprisingly cheap amounts due from Madison Gas and Electric; the ranged from anywhere between less than $50 to about $200.

Department of Administration explained those bills were strictly for the few meters actually at the Capitol. A full accounting of the Capitol's utility costs revealed the Capitol has its own power plant.

Located about six blocks east of the square, the Capitol Heat and Power Plant has supplied energy for the Capitol, along with other state-owned buildings downtown, for more than 100 years.

While the plant once burned coal to actually power the Capitol itself, it now heats steam for the state buildings as acts as a go-between as it passes through voltage underground from MG&E to the Capitol.

"Back then, we actually did produce our own power here so they had a central plant that could control any state facility downtown," said Chad Bliefernicht, the Assistant Director of Facilities for the DOA who oversees the Capitol power plant.

The total set of records revealed total electric costs of $918,375 in fiscal year 2019, which runs from July through June. In 2020, the cost grew to $948,636, even with four of those months affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that closed the Capitol to the public.

Records provided to 27 News ran through April of 2021; if costs for this past May and June held consistent with the previous two years, it would add about $180,000 to the 10-month fiscal year 2021 total of $721,355.

Comparing the three October bills illustrates how the pandemic had a minimal effect on electric costs:

  • October 2018 - $64,991
  • October 2019 - $56,662
  • October 2020 - $62,974

Bliefernicht explained the DOA did not enact any cost-saving measures during the pandemic because the Capitol remains at full power no matter the situation.

"The Capitol's ready to go 24/7 no matter what. Just because it was closed to the public because of the pandemic doesn't mean we stopped operation whatsoever," he said. "We still have to heat it all winter, we still have to cool it all summer. Everything in the building is still operable at any moment in time."

Amy Barrilleaux, communications director for Clean Wisconsin, said they expect the Capitol to run up a hefty utility bill given its size and volume. She added the state should still make every effort to find energy efficiencies given those costs.

"It's the kind of building we really need to pay attention to," she said. "Gonna use a lot of energy to heat, cool, to run all those lights."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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