Wisconsin 35th Nationally in Disclosure of Money in Politics

December 13, 1999

Madison - Wisconsin’s reputation for open government and clean politics took another beating in a new national survey of disclosure of money in politics, which ranks Wisconsin 35th among the 50 states and says the forecast for electronic disclosure of campaign donations in the state is "mostly cloudy," according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

To add insult to the injury of the below-average ranking, even states not known for good government such as Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey and Texas received higher marks for disclosure than Wisconsin.

"Effective disclosure of campaign contributions is essential to democracy. Wisconsin should be leading the way in this area. Instead, we cannot even keep up with the likes of Illinois and Louisiana," WDC Executive Director Gail Shea said. "This should be a wake-up call."

Citing the legislature’s inability to act on campaign finance reform in time for the 2000 elections, Shea said, "There’s no denying that we have a serious problem here. Everyone expects we will start the new millennium with the ugliest election season ever. At this point we are not even assured that we will have electronic disclosure in place for the 2000 elections. Our tradition of open government is being undermined as every day goes by."

Lack of interest in disclosure also is evident in the refusal to address so-called "issue advocacy" campaigns run by special interest groups, Shea said. Although issue ads are indistinguishable from other political ads, interest groups have skirted disclosure laws and possibly circumvented the state’s ban on corporate contributions by not using words like "vote for" and "vote against" in the ads. The State Supreme Court has invited lawmakers to craft new rules that would regulate issue ads, but the full Legislature has not acted.

Shea also pointed to campaign committees run by legislative leaders and out-of-state party committees that are taking advantage of defects in Wisconsin’s election laws to thwart disclosure. These abuses could be easily remedied with law changes, but lawmakers have shown little interest, she said.

"There is plenty of blame to go around," Shea said.

The first-ever nationwide evaluation of the 50 states’ efforts on disclosure was led by the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation and involved several prominent national organizations, including the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Governmental Studies, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The full report and state-by-state summaries can be found on-line a the Digital Sunlight webpage.