Freese Rant on WDC Hides Real Weaknesses in Latest Campaign Finance Reform Proposal

May 16, 2002

Madison - A top Assembly Republican’s criticism of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign for expressing concerns about the most recent campaign reform proposal offered to the budget conference committee is a symptom of legislative leaders’ closemindedness and unwillingness to seriously work for much-needed reforms to Wisconsin’s broken campaign finance system, WDC’s executive director said today.

In a press release distributed earlier today, Representative Steve Freese (R-Dodgeville) blasted the Democracy Campaign’s critique of the proposal he helped craft.

WDC executive director Mike McCabe said, "With all due respect, Representative Freese should spend less time attacking citizen watchdog groups and more time rooting out the corruption that has become so prevalent in the Capitol on his watch."

McCabe added, "Instead of wasting so much time and energy coming up with a clever spin that makes weak tea appear to be vintage wine, legislative leaders like Steve Freese should be sitting at the negotiating table and doing the people’s business. The public wants campaign finance reform that truly fixes the problems that plague our elections and are corrupting the public policymaking process."

He noted the legislature’s leading campaign finance reform advocate, Neenah Republican Mike Ellis, was quoted today in The Capital Times calling Freese’s proposal a "sham" that is designed merely to "save face" for legislative leaders who are feeling heat due to the criminal investigation of political corruption in the legislature.

"It appears we are not the only ones with serious concerns about whether Representative Freese’s proposed system would actually work," McCabe said.

In his press release, Freese did not directly address WDC’s specific criticisms of his plan, but rather simply dismissed them and said the Democracy Campaign’s "credibility is at an all-time low."

WDC remains concerned that 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, McCabe said, adding Freese’s plan is based on the same funding philosophy as Wisconsin’s old campaign finance system. The lack of a guaranteed funding source like the one in Senator Ellis’s bill is one of the chief reasons Wisconsin’s old campaign finance system broke down, he said.

"It makes no sense to create a new system that contains the same flaw as the system they’re trying to repair," he said. WDC could support an expanded income tax check-off if legislators would agree to supplement the fund with general tax revenue if the check-off did not produce enough revenue to fund the new system, he added, noting that the Ellis bill does just that.

McCabe reiterated that the absence of matching grants to candidates who face opponents who exceed the spending limits in the Assembly position makes it far weaker than the Ellis bill. Matching grants would create a powerful incentive for all candidates to agree to spending limits, he said. Without this incentive, he added, candidates are unlikely to abide by spending limits.

WDC also continues to believe that provisions relating to disclosure of issue ads in the new Assembly proposal are very weak when compared to the Ellis bill, McCabe said.

"There are legitimate questions about whether the system the Assembly is proposing would work. We’e not interested in seeing a bill passed just for the sake of passing a bill. We want reform that actually fixes our broken system," he said.

"Representative Freese should worry less about our standing with the public and worry more about the integrity of the legislature. Our state’s elected officials are literally hemorrhaging credibility because of the budget mess and the corruption scandal, and all he can think to do is attack a watchdog group?" McCabe said.