A bill that will require less disclosure from donors and likely increase the amount of money in state politics is speeding through the Republican-run Legislature despite strong opposition from Democratic legislators.
Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin political science professor, said the objective of the bill is to allow more money to flow into campaigns in more ways.
“It’s probably the most dramatic change to Wisconsin campaign finance laws in a generation or two, and it will change how campaigns are run,” Burden said.
Following the Senate passage of the bill, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement the government took a “long-overdue” step to update the currently cumbersome campaign finance regulations.
Fitzgerald said in the statement campaign finance might not be a “glamorous” issue and that that the legislation may disagree with current status quo, but it ensures state statutes remain in compliance with state and federal law.
Allowing coordination between issue groups and campaigns
David Canon, UW political science professor, said the bill includes three main parts that will cause the major change.
Canon said issue advocacy groups differ from other groups because they are able to raise an unlimited amount of money. Burden said issue groups cannot take an explicit side for or against a particular candidate.
Burden cited the Wisconsin Club for Growth as an issue group subject to recent attention, as it was a key player in a now-closed John Doe investigation looking into Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election. He said while it is officially a nonpartisan group and holds that tax status, it spends money on Republican candidates.
Burden said there are similar groups for the Democratic side, making the idea of total nonpartisanship in issue groups seem like a “sham.” He said he thinks most people view the groups with clear partisan agendas, doing everything but explicitly saying “vote for” or “vote against” a particular candidate.
Burden said prior to this legislation, issue groups and candidates could not coordinate advertising and staff hiring decisions. Canon said this change is possibly the most significant, since these groups will be able to coordinate with campaigns with unlimited funding.
But John Sharpless, a UW history professor, said he found in his experience running for Congress that unofficial coordination already occurs in campaigns, regardless of this legislation.
Sharpless said groups work with candidates distantly and through hypothetical terms to create advertisements that highlight certain aspects of their campaigns. Because of this, he said the campaign finance reform package will not lead to more spending.
Canon said in their recent John Doe decision, the state Supreme Court ruled this coordination allowable, but the law will contradict federal law regarding issue groups and campaign coordination. As a result, he said the change in coordination will only apply to state, and not federal, races.
Large donors no longer have to record their employers when donating
Canon said any donation more than $100 is considered a large donation and currently requires its donor to include his or her employer’s name in addition to the donated amount. But under the new reform donors would no longer record their employers, just their occupations.
Canon said advocates for campaign finance reform argue this would have a negative impact on accountability when tracking campaign donations. He said in the past, some businesses essentially forced their employees to donate to legislators in an effort to gain votes in favor of legislation that could help their businesses.
The reform would make it easier for this to happen because it eliminates any watchdog’s ability to track donations by employer, he said.
Doubling donation limits
Canon said the bill also doubled donation limits for most groups, with the exception of PACs. Canon and Burden both said this will lead to more money in Wisconsin campaigns.
Sharpless said it takes money to promote issues citizens think are important so for the government to limit spending is to shield itself from criticism.
“We’re past an age where handing out leaflets changes anything,” Sharpless said. “You need money to have a voice in modern technical society … There is no way to change that and there’s no way it should be changed. It’s just the way it is.”
Sharpless said currently there is anger toward Republicans, but Democrats construct campaign finance laws similarly. He said no politician would write campaign finance laws that would undermine them.
Assembly Democratic leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement taxpayers want the government to address struggling schools, poor roads and the declining middle class, not increasing money in politics.
“Instead of working to improve economic security for hardworking people, Republicans are dead set on consolidating their power, making it easier for corruption and cronyism to go undetected,” Barca said.
Passage of legislation
All Democratic Assembly members recused themselves from voting on the legislation. They claimed the bill would directly impact their campaigns and this conflict of interest could affect their voting decisions.
Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called the Democrats’ decision “sophomoric” in a statement and said it caused more than two million Wisconsinites’ voices to go unheard.
“In a unanimous vote, the Assembly approved legislation that promotes free speech and aligns our statutes with court rulings on political speech,” Vos said.
The Senate added a few amendments before passing it in a 17-15 vote Nov. 7.
Canon said while legislators had about a half of a day of hearings, similar pieces of legislation would have listening sessions around the state and several days of hearings in the state Legislature to encourage questions and understand the substance of the bill.
“On something as big and complex as this piece of legislation, I think it is very important to have that open transparent process, and we simply have not had that with this bill” Canon said.
The amended version of the bill will return to the Assembly for another vote Nov. 16 and, if passed, will go to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk.
“It’s opening up the box and moving us in the direction of the Wild West with fewer restrictions, fewer regulations and less openness,” Burden said.