A Sign of Corruption: Wisconsin GOP Has Passed Landlord-Tenant Laws that Benefit Certain Lawmakers at the Expense of Everyone Else

We detailed yesterday what our vision is for holding the Wisconsin GOP-controlled legislature accountable. One aspect of that vision is informing you, the public, of what corrupt actions our legislature has been up to. Here’s one example that perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with the Republican legislature in our state.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel featured a story a couple of weeks ago that detailed several instances where the Republican-controlled legislature, since 2011, had written and passed several laws that directly benefited several Republican members of the chamber, who were landlords, at the expense of renters and everyone else. Five specific members sponsored pieces of legislation that benefited them. This includes three current members of the legislature who are up for re-election in 2020: State Senator Duey Stroebel of Saukville (my current State Senator), State Representative Samantha Kerkman (Salem), and current State Assembly Leader, Robin Vos, of Rochester in Racine County.

State Assembly Leader Vos, in particular, is worth discussing in some more detail. Vos is “a college-town landlord with 23 properties worth about $3.8 million.” Vos has been in charge of deciding what pieces of legislation advance to the Assembly floor for a vote since 2013. However, he was also a prominent member of the party before that, including when the GOP won control of the state legislature after the 2010 midterm elections.

Since Republicans won control of the state legislature in 2010, they “have made at least 100 changes to landlord-tenant law — most of which Vos acknowledged favored landlords.”

Vos has directly benefited from many of the changes he’s helped make in the law. This included trying to push a bill quickly through the legislature in 2011, and getting it signed into law, that would have capped the amount in attorney’s fees that Vos could have potentially owed in a legal proceeding that he lost.

Overall, the changes the Republican legislature has made, according to both “Landlords and tenant advocates,” have ” fundamentally shifted the balance of power between landlords and tenants.” This has included:

  1. Several changes in the law meant to undermine the “Eviction Defense Fund,” an organization that provides “free lawyers to Milwaukee County tenants facing eviction.”
  2. Making it quicker for landlords to evict people suspected of criminal activity which may “result in domestic violence victims becoming homeless along with their abusers, advocates warn.”
  3. Changes which have limited what local governments can do on neighborhood inspections which makes our neighborhoods less safe.
  4. Capping the amount in fees that landlords can owe when they fail to repair some code violations which incentivizes landlords to neglect making necessary repairs to the property they rent out to tenants.
  5.  “barring municipalities from enforcing a variety of ordinances such as ones requiring landlords to provide voter registration information to tenants,” and
  6.   Banning “city governments from requiring landlords to disclose any information to tenants unless federal or state government already mandated the disclosure.”

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a non-profit organization that tracks campaign finance in Wisconsin and is fighting for campaign finance and “other democracy reforms,” estimates that “the real estate industry doled out nearly $6.8 million in individual and political action committee (PAC) contributions to legislative and statewide candidates, including nearly $5.8 million for Republicans” from ” January 2011 and July 2018.” Vos, in particular, received “about $34,370.” Senator Stroebel received “$26,435.”

Though the activity discussed this in the Journal Sentinel article may not technically be in violation of any ethical rules or laws, it should be. It is absolutely a conflict of interest for lawmakers who are landlords to re-write laws that benefit them, financially or otherwise. It’s exactly the kind of behavior that allows lawmakers to become significantly richer after having served in our government than they were before they entered it.

It’s also an excellent example of why we badly need campaign finance reform. The real estate lobby has been effective at getting the legislation they want passed by donating millions of dollars to Republican PACs and their campaigns. Tenants, who lack such a well-funded interest group to support them, but constitute a much larger share of the state, are getting the short-end of the stick. Their concerns aren’t even in the minds of Republican lawmakers when they make these changes.

This particular issue is just one of many that highlights why we need to flip control of the state legislature next fall. Republican lawmakers aren’t listening to our concerns. They’re not working for us. They’re trying to help themselves and/or those who donate the most money to them. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work. We can do better!

Write to your state legislators today and voice your concerns about this issue. Fired up to get Republicans out of office? Take action!

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