New Campaign Finance Law Enshrines Electoral Secrecy

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

August 23, 2016

It’s been eight months now since the Wisconsin legislature’s disastrous rewrite of our campaign finance law, and you can already see the havoc that it’s wreaking on the public’s right to know and on the public’s right to impose reasonable limits on campaign contributions.

Here are the effects of some of the most alarming changes.

1. Allowing Corporate Gifts

For the first time in 111 years, corporations are now giving directly to political parties and to legislative campaign committees. In the first four months of the year corporations gave almost $300,000 to these outfits. The lion’s share went to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate. The top five corporate donors were:

The Wisconsin Beer Distributors: $36,000

Altria (formerly Philip Morris the tobacco company): $30,000

ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors): $24,000

Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce: $24,000

Agents Assistance Corp. of Wisconsin: $16,000

2. Not Requiring Donor’s Employer Information

The old campaign finance law required donors who gave more than $100 to a candidate in a calendar year to list their employer. Last December, the Republicans scrubbed that obligation. Now it’s much more difficult for the media and the public to track donations and to find out whether some companies are trying to get sweetheart deals, loans, subsidies, or policies in return for the gifts that their employees are giving to elected officials. And the new requirement to list only “occupation” is not helpful at all. Take Ted Kellner, who gave Scott Walker $20,000 in May. In his latest campaign report, Walker identified Kellner simply as an “analyst.” He’s not a therapist, mind you. He’s executive chairman of Fiduciary Management Inc, a big investment company in Milwaukee.

3. Less Disclosure of PAC activity

Political action committees (PACs) used to have to register with the state. Now PACs, no matter how much they spend, don’t have to report financial activity to the state unless their major purpose is “express advocacy” (telling us to vote for or vote against a specific candidate) or unless they “spend more than 50 percent” of their total budget in Wisconsin. So PACs that are national, like WalMart’s PAC, don’t have to register with the state of Wisconsin -- even though it gave $18,500 so far this year to Wisconsin candidates and legislative campaign committees -- because it spends a lot of money in other states, as well.

4. Less Disclosure of “Express Advocacy” Groups

Similarly, even independent expenditure groups, which are those that engage in express advocacy, don’t have to report financial activity to the state unless that is their major purpose or unless they “spend more than 50 percent” of their total budget in Wisconsin.

5. Allowing Coordination

The new campaign finance law now allows candidates to coordinate with phony issue ad groups. You’ve seen the ads: “Call Candidate X and tell him to stop coddling criminals” or some other outrageous claim. So a candidate for state senate could steer his richest donor to one of these groups and have that donor give, say, $2 million to that issue ad group, which is 1,000 times the limit that the donor could give directly to the candidate. The candidate could then tell that issue ad group how to spend the $2 million, and the kicker is that the group would not have to disclose a single penny of it.

That’s how the new campaign finance law is reducing us, the citizens of Wisconsin, to mere spectators – and often blind spectators at that.

This is not how a democracy is supposed to work.

A democracy requires open books, especially about who is trying to influence the outcome of elections.

And a democracy requires that we all have an equal say about who gets elected.

A version of this column appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

WDC Executive Director Matthew Rothschild
Matthew Rothschild
WDC Executive Director

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