MikeEllis_JS

JEFF SCHORFHEIDE/Herald photo

Legislators speaking at the University of Wisconsin slammed Gov. Jim Doyle Monday for his actions on campaign finance reform.

According to Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, Doyle “didn’t do a damn thing” after the Senate voted on campaign finance reform.

“Governors don’t want a level playing field,” Ellis added.

Ellis urged voters to take action on campaign finance reform to restore debate over political issues and minimize the influence of deep-pocketed special interest groups during elections.

Panelists from both parties denounced the Gableman versus Butler race for state Supreme Court Justice as the nastiest race in Wisconsin’s history, footing a bill of more than $6 million.

“We have to make this an election issue,” said Jay Heck, executive director of the Common Cause in Wisconsin. “You have to make it a bottom-line issue for you and for everyone else.”

Ellis and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said they hope to pass legislation that would limit the amount of money interest groups are allowed to spend on political campaigns. The bill would require disclosure by advertising groups on how much they are spending and where the funds come from.

Heck said legislation on campaign finance reform could easily pass, except legislative leaders are “philosophically opposed” to the idea and would not bring the issue to light.

But according to panelist Christian Schneider, a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, there is strong ground for opposition to Ellis and Erpenbach’s campaign finance reform because of the right to freedom of expression.

“If the First Amendment is meant for anything, it is to protect unpopular political opinions,” Schneider said. “It is condescending to voters to say, ‘You’re not smart enough to see through negative television advertisements.'”

Schneider added negative advertisements can bring harsh truths to light and often increase voter turnout by making voters more interested and invested in campaign issues.

However, Erpenbach and Ellis were quick to defend their campaign finance reform legislation from Schneider’s attacks.

“I do believe firmly in the First Amendment,” Erpenbach said. “I think everybody has the right to free speech — but you can’t go into a crowded theater and yell ‘fire.'”

Erpenbach added huge contributions collected by special interest groups can mute individual opposition voices.

But Ken Mayer, UW political science professor, questioned Erpenbach’s idea of campaign finance reform as a shield to defend the individual opposition voices.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with this idea of using government power to redistribute funds,” Mayer said. “There is no reason to punish those with more money.”

Schneider added many of the deep-pocketed corporations and organizations that fund campaign advertisements gain financial support from their wide base of members, and they often represent huge numbers of people.

The event was the fourth in a series of seven sponsored by Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan reform advocacy organization of more than 3,000 members that focuses on campaign finance, ethics and reform to promote accountable government.