Lawmakers Don’t Make Grade on Campaign Finance Reform

WDC Gives Legislature D+ for ‘Bleak’ Record on Reform

November 15, 1999

Madison - The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said Monday that the Legislature’s penchant for partisan bickering and a lack of desire to reduce the flow and influence of monied special interest groups earns them "D+" grade on campaign finance reform efforts so far in the 1999-2000 legislative session.

The nonpartisan group’s disappointing grade was issued at the "mid-term" point in a session that started with the hope that this Legislature would work together and pass a comprehensive plan to control spending and special interest influence. But this optimism quickly dwindled by the end of summer.

"The Legislature has frittered away a golden opportunity to enact reforms that could be in effect for the 2000 elections. The real losers are the people and their needs, which must constantly take a backseat to high-spending special interests in state policy-making that affects their daily lives and pocketbooks," WDC executive director Gail Shea said.

Majority party lawmakers who hold the power topass reform legislation earned particularly low grades. The WDC gave Democrats who control the State Senate a D+, while majority Republicans in the Assembly got a D-. Minority Democrats in the Assembly did slightly better, earning a C-, according to the WDC assessments. Senate Republicans were given the highest grade - a B - largely on the strength of a far-reaching reform proposal offered by Senate Minority Leader Mike Ellis.

"When you look at the bottom line, the Legislature probably deserves an 'F.' But some positive things have happened and some progress was made, and we felt it was important to give credit where credit is due," Shea said.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Mid-Term Report Card
on Campaign Finance Reform Efforts
in the State Legislature

Paste date here

Senate Republicans -- B

Senate Republican leader Ellis crafted a daring proposal that offers over $3 million in public financing for candidates, as well as a pioneering system of matching public grants to candidates who face independent spending campaigns against them or whose opponents exceed the spending limits. Ellis has exhibited more passion and has invested more time and energy to promote reform than any member in either party or either house. He also demonstrated early flexibility, agreeing to a number of changes to his bill recommended by reform groups. Because of their minority status, Senate Republicans are in no position to ensure action on reform legislation, but the Ellis proposal certainly changed the nature of the campaign finance debate this session.

Senate Republicans Mary Panzer and Robert Cowles voted in the Joint Finance Committee in favor of the governor’s budget proposal setting aside money for public financing. Also, Senators Ellis, Rude and Darling voted to define phony "issue ads" as the political ads they really are.

The only blemish on the Republican record was an unwillingness to take advantage of important opportunities to keep reform discussions alive. While a less rigid approach still may not have yielded bipartisan progress, given the strident partisanship of majority Democrats, the refusal to discuss any further modifications to the Senate Republican plan served to cement the gridlock.

Assembly Democrats -- C-

Granted, it’s hard to accomplish much in the minority, but that doesn’t excuse the lackluster effort by the Assembly Democratic caucus. While Representative Peter Bock continued to speak strongly in favor of reform, other caucus leaders have been missing in action, showing no discernible interest in promoting campaign reform.

On the positive side of the ledger, Democratic members of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee have distinguished themselves, exhibiting a spirit of bipartisanship in working with Republican chairman Steve Freese. A hopeful sign for the future is the energy, pragmatism and sincerity displayed by the freshman class, most notably Mark Miller and Gary Sherman. The caucus as a whole, however, has shown no real passion for reform.

Senate Democrats -- D+

The record of the Senate Democratic caucus is bleak. Senate Democrats have spent the year in a stall, holding hearings and creating a moving policy target by regularly shifting their position on reform issues. When Senate Republican leader Mike Ellis offered a groundbreaking reform proposal that would pay for a third of campaign costs and creatively address special interest independent spending campaigns, Senate Democratic leader Charles Chvala’s initial response was a bill calling for 50% public financing. When Ellis sought to narrow the gap by agreeing to several changes to his bill, the Senate Democrats countered by demanding 75% public financing. They soon changed gears again, calling for 57% public financing for legislative races and higher levels for other offices, including 75% for Supreme Court candidates. The ink on that bill was barely dry when Chvala proposed that Supreme Court justices be appointed rather than elected. This was followed by the Democrats sending the 100% funding for justices bill to almost certain death in the Joint Finance Committee. These political gymnastics have had the effect of staving off action. In addition to the delay tactics, Senate Democrats have been rigidly partisan, refusing to schedule the Ellis plan for even a committee vote.

In a last minute effort to retrieve some credibility, the Senate Democrats passed a bill defining issue ads in the last 60 days before an election as political ads if they identify a candidate. However, by focusing only on issue ads and not on the abuses of all independent spending campaigns, this bill has little hope in the Assembly.

Assembly Republicans -- D-

When Governor Thompson and the Senate Republicans opened the door to possible bipartisan agreement on reform legislation by reversing traditional GOP opposition to the use of public funds for election campaigns, Assembly Republicans tried to slam it shut again, positioning themselves as the last holdouts against public financing. The Assembly GOP caucus voted to remove the $750,000 the governor put in his proposed budget for public financing, and then added insult to injury by voting to kill the income tax check-off that provides funding for public grants to candidates.

When not working to undermine the statesmanship of their fellow Republicans in the Senate and the governor’s office, Assembly Republicans have sought political cover by passing a collection of inconsequential campaign finance bills.

The only thing that spares the caucus an "F" is the effort of a handful of members. During Joint Finance Committee budget deliberations, Dean Kaufert and David Ward broke ranks to vote for the money the governor set aside in the budget for public financing. Steve Freese, chairman of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee, has worked tirelessly to court bipartisan support for reform legislation.