Republican Assembly legislators passed a bill that would change campaign finance donation limits, disclosure requirements and coordination between candidates, parties and groups Wednesday.
All Republicans supported the bill’s passage, but all Democrats abstained on the basis that their campaign committees had a financial interest.
Republicans who approved the legislation argue it gives more freedom to political parties, while Democrats voice numerous grievances against it.
Assembly Democratic leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, released a memorandum accusing GOP legislators of completely rewriting the Wisconsin Statutes chapter covering campaign finances in a bill by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
Barca said in the memo the bill would give individuals and corporations the ability to anonymously spend unlimited amounts on a campaign up to 60 days prior to an election. In the 60 days leading up to the election, they could spend up to $4,999.99 anonymously.
Laura Smith, spokesperson for Barca, said if passed by the Senate, the bill would remove important disclosure requirements.
“It’s part of this bill to take away our clean, open and transparent government,” Smith said.
The memo states the bill also permits donors to report only their occupation and not report their employer’s name if they contribute more than $200.
Vos said the bill expands individuals’ ability to ban together and advocate for issues they care about. He called this ability a “foundational building block for our democratic institution.”
Vos said the bill is not about elections, but coordinating between issue advocacy groups and legislators in order to promote important issues to the public. He said both Republicans and Democrats would have the exact same ability to highlight what they believe is wrong in Wisconsin.
“I think one of the things we need in society is more discussion of issues [and] less discussion about elections, and that is exactly what this is about,” Vos said. “We are going to have the opportunity to have more issues discussed in the media.”
Smith said the bill would undo broad, required candidate disclosure of who or what pays for specific tools such as campaign literature. She said this is an important part of democracy because citizens should be able to understand who is paying for what when it comes to elections.
Kenneth Mayer, professor of political science in the La Follette School of Public Affairs at University of Wisconsin, said such specific disclosure requirements posed a problem.
Previously, people could contribute to campaign finances with mandated disclosure, he said, but now, disclosure is more conditional and limited.
Vos said in a statement the bills would ensure and encourage free speech and participation in the political process.
He said the Assembly is following court orders to alter statutes so that they protect free speech. Vos referred to Democrats being in a “hyperbole overdrive” that made it seem like free speech was not important in the bill.
“It’s time to put aside the fear-mongering and allow for the facts to prevail,” Vos said in the statement. “This week’s legislative calendar is about protecting free speech.”
But Democrats still find issues with the campaign finance bill.
Mayer said the doubling of campaign contribution limits was the bill’s most controversial change to campaign finance law.
The bill also permits unlimited coordination between groups as long as it is not directly related to campaign activity, Smith said. This means groups can coordinate as long as they do not use specific phrases such as “vote for” or “vote against,” Barca said in the memo. They do not have to disclose donors, either, which might allow candidates to exercise control over their donors, Smith said.
“This [candidate] could be really negative and they could dictate how [an] organization runs,” Smith said.
Barca, among other Democrats, expressed concerns in the memo about the bill process being rushed. He said in the memo this kind of “fast-tracked” processing will prevent legislators, legislative service agencies, the media and the public from really understanding and discussing the bill. This could lead to increased corruption and make it difficult to identify it, Smith said.
Mayer said the Legislature has been operating quickly without much deliberation for the last few years and noted that this may be because it makes it more difficult to counter the bill.
The bill now moves to the Senate for a vote.
Margaret Duffey and Peter Culver contributed reporting to this story.