The state Assembly approved a paper ballot vote Thursday to lift a ban on fundraising during the period of time when the budget is up for consideration, a measure some critics say could allow special interest groups to leverage their agendas through campaign donations.

The policy, which was approved by the Committee on Assembly Organization, will allow members of the Assembly to raise funds anywhere in Wisconsin besides Dane County during the budget period, beginning when the budget is introduced and ending when the governor signs the bill into law.  

Jay Heck, spokesperson for Common Cause in Wisconsin, and Mike McCabe, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign spokesperson, both said lifting the ban was a step backward for the state.

Heck said the 2009 Democrat-controlled Assembly’s motion to ban this sort of fundraising reflected the understanding that members should not be raising money while putting together the state budget, as many groups with a stake in the state budget could then make campaign contributions. 

According to Heck, such influence by outside interest groups taints public perception, demonstrating how donors could “buy favoritism.”

Heck said a number of states ban fundraising during the budget session and many have a ban written into state law. He argued Wisconsin needs such a law instead of just a Senate and Assembly rule.

The Assembly’s decision to lift this ban using paper ballot votes speaks to their desire to not draw attention to it, Heck said. Paper ballot votes are used in the Senate and Assembly to pass votes without holding public meetings.

“It just indicates they’re not very proud of it,” Heck said. “They don’t want to make a big deal about it and draw attention from the press.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, was charged with circulating the paper ballot. Vos could not be reached for comment.

Echoing Heck’s observation, McCabe characterized the use of paper ballots as a way to lift the ban without public scrutiny. He also said the new policy enforces a “pay to play” mentality, shaking the public’s confidence in the Legislature.

McCabe also said going back to the pre-2009 rules weakens Assembly policy.

“What they’ve done now is a big step back. It opens the door again to active funding by members during the budget process,” McCabe said.

He said the rule could create a “shakedown” of interest groups looking to get their projects funded because the policy change benefits such groups.

Fundraising goes on year-round but it intensifies during the budget session period, McCabe said, because legislators are holding the strings. During this time, they are in a position to decide what gets funded and what does not, giving them leverage they would not normally have during other times of the year.

He argued a law banning this practice would liberate politicians from having to cater to interest groups, but taking action to prevent this practice during a polarized time in state politics would also be a step in the right direction.

In the Senate, however, no such ban exists.

Tom Evenson, spokesperson for Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said senators’ campaign committees cannot hold fundraiser events in Dane Country during days the Senate is scheduled to be in session, a policy in effect since 1993.

Evenson declined to comment on the Assembly’s decision to lift its ban on budget session fundraising.