WDC Responds to Latest Reform Proposal

Open Memo to Budget Conferees

May 15, 2002

TO: Budget Conferees
FROM: Mike McCabe, Executive Director, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
DATE: May 15, 2002
RE: Latest Campaign Finance Reform Proposal in Budget Repair Bill

The most recent campaign finance reform proposal offered yesterday represents positive movement.

While we are encouraged by the signs of progress, we remain concerned that the Assembly position falls short of what is needed to fix the problems that plague our elections and truly deliver what 90 percent of referendum voters said they want - limited campaign spending, stricter limits on contributions, and full and prompt disclosure of all election activities.

Specifically, we have three major concerns about the new Assembly position:

  1. There is no assurance that a $10 check-off will adequately fund the promised candidate grants or the matching grants enabling issue ads to be countered, especially since the plan makes grants to Supreme Court and state Superintendent candidates a "first draw" on the fund. There is even less assurance that the check-off will be a stable and reliable source of funding over the long haul. The lack of a guaranteed funding source is one of the chief reasons Wisconsin’s old campaign finance system broke down. It makes no sense to create a new system that is at risk of experiencing a similar fate.
  2. The absence of matching grants to candidates who face opponents who exceed the spending limits makes the Assembly position far weaker than the current Senate position. Matching grants to enable candidates to counter high-spending opponents would level the playing field for all candidates and provide voters with competitive races and meaningful choices. Matching grants also would create a powerful incentive for all candidates to agree to spending limits. Without this incentive, candidates are unlikely to abide by spending limits, and the political arms race will continue unabated.
  3. Disclosure of issue ads in the new Assembly proposal remains very weak. At the very least, disclosure of this activity should occur as soon as an obligation is incurred. Reporting campaign activity as soon as an obligation is incurred is a well-established tradition in Wisconsin campaign finance law. The Assembly position abandons this tradition for issue ad reporting by allowing groups to incur an obligation but delay disclosing the activity for days or even weeks.

It is not enough to agree to a package that can be labeled campaign finance reform. Campaign finance reform needs to truly reform our broken system. For a reform agreement to truly be effective and meaningful, it must contain:

  • Effective and enforceable spending limits;
  • A reliable and stable source of funding that fully covers the cost of the public grants that candidates receive if they agree to limit their spending;
  • Full and prompt disclosure of issue ads and a mechanism that truly gives all candidates the means to respond to independent expenditures and issue ads run against them;

The new Assembly position still falls well short of meeting these key tests. Unless these tests are met, any reform package will fail to remedy the major problems plaguing our elections and the forces corrupting the political process in Wisconsin will go unchecked.