Special Session on Ethics OK, But Must Address Root Causes of Capitol Corruption Scandal

Broken Campaign Finance System is Common Thread in Criminal Charges

October 21, 2002

Madison - Any special legislative session in response to the Capitol scandal needs to focus on the enactment of comprehensive campaign reforms if lawmakers are serious about ending corrupt practices in state government, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said today in response to Governor Scott McCallum’s call for a November 13 special session.

Instead of confining a special session to the consideration of limited ethics reforms the governor is calling a "Corrupt Practices Act," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said lawmakers should consider a much more sweeping package of reforms such as the "Clean Sweep" package the Democracy Campaign has put forward.

Clean Sweep includes a 14-point campaign finance reform agenda as well as reform of the state elections and ethics boards and other changes.

"The common denominator in these criminal charges is the campaign money chase," McCabe said. "There is no way lawmakers can rid the Capitol of this plague without enacting major campaign reforms that fix Wisconsin’s broken campaign finance system."

The breakdown of the state’s once-effective campaign finance laws has contributed to the corruption scandal in two ways, McCabe said.

First, it has fueled a political arms race that puts immense pressure on candidates to raise huge sums of campaign money, creating a strong temptation to auction off public policy for campaign donations.

Second, the huge campaign war chests amassed by legislative incumbents have resulted in a growing number of uncontested races and a corresponding loss of accountability. In half of this year’s legislative races - 57 of the 116 contests - candidates face no major party opposition. In 1970, there were no uncontested legislative races in Wisconsin. In 1982, just 14 percent were uncontested. The percentage of candidates lacking major party opposition rose to 40 percent by the 2000 election and has gone up to 49 percent in 2002.

"Uncontested elections are an invitation to mischief and a recipe for corruption," McCabe said. "Elected officials serve the public best when they serve in fear of the next election. When they get a free ride at election time, they are no longer held accountable in the way they ought to be."

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Clean Sweep Initiative

1. Comprehensive campaign finance reform as strong or stronger than 2001 Senate Bill 104 that:

  • Creates spending limits for all state races - including no more than $2 million for governor, $100,000 for senate and $50,000 for assembly - that sharply reduce campaign spending in the highest-spending races and level the playing field for all candidates.
  • Provides public financing grants equal to at least 45% of the spending limits to candidates who agree to limit their spending. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the cost of this public financing at just over $1 per taxpayer.
  • Provides a guaranteed source of revenue that fully funds the cost of the public financing system and prevents the grants promised to candidates under the law from being prorated or denied.
  • Provides matching grants directly to candidates who agree to limit their spending but who face opponents who refuse to abide by spending limits or who have independent campaigns run against them by special interest groups. (The campaign reform plan included in the budget repair bill provides funds for matching grants to the state political parties rather than to individual candidates.)
  • Bans campaign fundraising by elected state officials during the state budget process and prohibits campaign fundraisers in Dane County any time the legislature is in session.
  • Includes an explicit legal prohibition on "pay to play" activity (trading official action or inaction for campaign donations).
  • Bans out-of-state contributions unless the donations are made by individuals or committees registered with the Federal Elections Commission. This provision is needed to prevent campaign money from being laundered through out-of-state committees that are out of reach of Wisconsin campaign regulation.
  • Cuts the limits on the size of allowable campaign contributions in half. For example, the contribution limit for statewide races such as governor would be reduced from $10,000 to $5,000, the limit for senate races would go from $1,000 to $500, and the assembly limit would go from $500 to $250.
  • Requires disclosure of "issue ads" within 60 days of an election that refer to a specific race or candidate on the ballot in that election, and reporting of the identity of the group sponsoring the communication, the amount spent and the source of money used to pay for the communications for or against the candidate.
  • Bases disclosure of issue ads and other forms of independent campaigns by special interest groups on the established legal tradition in Wisconsin requiring campaign activities to be reported when money is spent or an obligation to spend money is incurred. (The campaign finance plan in the budget repair bill requires prior notice of anticipated activities, which unnecessarily exposes it to the risk of being overturned in court.)
  • Eliminates the partisan legislative campaign committees under the control of legislative leaders.
  • Prevents the creation of "SuperPACs" by banning transfers of funds from one political action committee (PAC) to another.
  • Limits candidates’ carryover "war chests" to no more than 10% of the spending limit.
  • Includes at least limited "severability" so that if one element of the bill is found unconstitutional, other reform provisions will remain in effect. (The plan included in the budget repair bill is completely nonseverable; in other words, if one provision is found unconstitutional, the entire law is void.)

2. Reform of the structure of the state Elections Board and Ethics Board that replaces the current boards with a nonpartisan citizen board and that provide the board with the resources to investigate possible violations and rigorously enforce Wisconsin’s campaign finance and ethics laws.

3. End the use of public funds to pay legal fees for any legislator or legislative employee who is under criminal investigation or has been criminally charged.

4. Elimination of all former caucus staff positions that were retained after the caucus offices were abolished.

5. Strengthen the state ethics code and lobbying law to: 1) bolster enforcement powers; 2) curb the effects of campaign contributions from lobbyists and the organizations the lobbyists represent; 3) raise standards of conduct expected of state and local government officials; 4) strengthen lobbying laws; and 5) enhance requirements that government officials identify personal financial interests that might conflict with their government responsibilities. (A description of 58 specific recommendations is available on the State Ethics Board web-site.)

6. Creation of a nonpartisan citizen commission to reapportion legislative and congressional districts in Wisconsin after each census and an end to the use of public funds to retain private attorneys to represent the interests of a particular partisan legislative caucus or lawmaker during the redistricting process.