In a session that lasted late into Thursday night, the state Legislature passed a bill that will allow public financing in races for seats on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

According to Jay Heck, executive director for Common Cause Wisconsin, the bill will create a check-off option on Wisconsin income tax forms to give taxpayers the option of donating $3 to a public “Democracy Fund” for Supreme Court races, similar to the way public financing works in presidential elections.

The new law comes after Wisconsin Supreme Court races in 2007 and 2008 generated national attention for their controversial competitive spending.

Supreme Court candidates will have the opportunity to opt into public financing if they raise between $5,000 and $15,000 from a minimum of 1,000 donations ranging from $5 to $100, according to the bill.

Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, criticized the current state of Supreme Court races. He said excessive campaign funding has had too much of an impact on who chooses to compete in Supreme Court elections.

“We have a saying here: ‘Money talks and B.S. walks,'” Schneider said. “And that’s what’s happened with our Supreme Court.”

Assembly Republicans and groups including Wisconsin Right to Life opposed the bill, saying taxpayers should not be forced to fund elections. Rep. Phil Montgomery, R-Green Bay, said the bill forces taxpayers to pay for the public financing while misleading them into thinking they can decide to enter the financing or not.

“Under this proposal, taxpayers would be given a false impression that somehow, by checking a box, they could have a say in how their money was spent,” Montgomery said. “But what is false about this is the check-off means nothing. Whether you check it or not, you’re paying for it. It is your tax dollars that will be going to this.”

The bill passed the Assembly on a close 51-42 vote. The Senate passed similar legislation on their floor Thursday as well.

Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which supported the campaign reform legislation, said the bill created the most significant campaign reform in Wisconsin since 1977.

McCabe said the current state of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election system leaves too many viable candidates out of the race out of fear they will have to compete in a race that raises $6 million — the amount he said was raised for the last Supreme Court race in 2008.

“I think there are a lot of good lawyers and judges out there who could make excellent Supreme Court justices [and] simply don’t want to have anything to do with current judicial politics,” McCabe said. “That’s good for the public because it’s going to give them more choices.”

Heck said the bill is a great first step, but the reform process has not yet ended. He named third-party financing reform as the next step in Supreme Court campaign finance reform.

The Assembly also passed legislation which would reform education in accord with stipulations for the federal Race to the Top educational funding program and bills to reform the Wisconsin Shares Program, which has experienced numerous problems with fraud.