The Ups and Downs of Campaign Finance Reform

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

March 16, 2004

The instinct of our state lawmakers to revert to partisan oneupmanship – no, make that onedownmanship – struck again last week at the state Capitol, this time on campaign finance reform legislation.

Senate Bill 12 – once a very good piece of reform legislation – was castrated in an effort to accommodate wealthy special interests and legislative leaders in the session’s 11th hour.

The original Senate Bill 12 was truly bipartisan, something any sincere and meaningful effort at reform ought to be. The revised version lost its bipartisan backing and died the death that it deserved.

The deal struck between the most powerful interest groups and legislative leaders was billed as a compromise. All you need to know about this "compromise" is this: The wealthy special interests that control our government had good reason to fear the original version of the bill. And they loved the new one.

No wonder. The original Senate Bill 12 prohibited corporate contributions to influence state election campaigns. Under the revised bill, unlimited corporate contributions were permitted.

Senate Bill 12 as it was originally written put strict limits on contributions from special interest conduit committees. The compromise allowed unlimited contributions from conduits.

The original SB 12 was devoted to full disclosure of all election-related activities, including the source of all campaign contributions made to influence elections. The compromise would have kept the public in the dark about the source of "soft money" donations that amounted to an estimated $4 million in 2002 and will most assuredly surpass that amount in future elections.

Despite an unambiguous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that soft money may be regulated, the compromise went to extreme lengths to protect this gaping loophole in Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws – even to the point of expressly prohibiting the state Elections Board from adopting rules requiring full disclosure of this special interest money.

SB 12 in its original form guaranteed that candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending would receive public grants enabling them to communicate with voters without taking out a second mortgage on their souls. The neutered version supported by legislative leaders and their special interest sponsors removed this guarantee, ensuring that candidates would not have received full grants and would be left with no choice but to continue to grovel before the wealthy special interests for financial support.

The so-called compromise would have allowed the behavior that has brought scandal and shame to the Capitol and resulted in criminal indictments of leading lawmakers to continue unabated.

This phony facsimile of reform ultimately collapsed. That is probably what it was designed to do. So once again, campaign finance reform legislation has been pronounced dead.

Not so fast. There remains an opportunity to achieve major reform this year. In January, the state Elections Board voted 5-4 to begin drafting a rule regulating phony "issue ads" and closing the loophole that let the estimated $4 million in anonymous and illegal funds flow into the 2002 state election campaigns.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last December that clearly upheld a ban on soft money and issue ad regulation, the powers-that-be at the Capitol already are rattling their sabers in an effort to head off a rule requiring full disclosure of soft money and issue ads. The co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules fired off a memo to the Elections Board last week that includes a veiled threat that the agency’s budget could be cut if the board moves forward with a disclosure rule.

The Elections Board should stand up to legislative intimidation and adopt a rule requiring full disclosure of soft money and issue ads. The board has a chance to play the hero and rescue us from this downward political spiral the Legislature has put us in.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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