Lawmakers Get Failing Marks for Campaign Reform Efforts

May 9, 2000

Madison - After failing to enact a single piece of campaign finance reform legislation in the 1999-2000 legislative session, state lawmakers were given an "F" in a final report card released today by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The evaluation also individually grades each party in both houses of the legislature as well as Governor Tommy Thompson. Democrats who control the Senate and majority Republicans in the Assembly both received "F" grades. Governor Thompson received a "D."

Because the majority parties in both houses controlled activity on reform legislation, the Democracy Campaign did not give minority Republicans in the Senate or Assembly Democrats traditional grades, opting instead to give Senate Republicans an "E for Effort" while minority Democrats in the lower house were said to have "dropped the course."

"Campaign finance reform legislation was caught up in the same partisan gridlock that doomed so many other bills," WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe said. "Both houses passed reform bills they knew the other house wouldn’t support. And they were never willing to sit down and work out their differences."

Senate Democrats passed a comprehensive reform bill in mid-March that called for 58% public financing of legislative races and in the last week of the session passed a judicial reform bill that called for full public financing of state Supreme Court races. The Republican-controlled Assembly refused to take up either bill. The Senate also passed a bill last November regulating so-called "issue ads" run by special interest groups if the ads focus on candidates and are aired within 60 days of an election, but the Assembly never scheduled the bill for debate.

In February, the Assembly passed its own version of comprehensive reform - the bill called for 33% public financing for all state offices but provided no funding source for the public grants. The Senate refused to debate it. Last year, the Assembly also passed its own judicial reform bill, which provided 45% public funding of Supreme Court races but paid for the grants by taking money out of the fund that provides public financing for legislative candidates who agree to spending limits. That bill also died in the Senate.

McCabe said one hopeful sign during the session was that several key Republicans reversed their traditional opposition to public financing of election campaigns. This opens the door to eventual agreement on what has been a major sticking point in discussions on reform legislation, he said.

Final Report Card on Campaign Finance Reform Efforts by Wisconsin Officials in the 1999-2000 Legislative Session April 2000

Overall Grade - F

In a performance marked by finger pointing and partisan childishness, lawmakers failed to enact a single piece of reform legislation into law. The leadership in both houses spent the session trying to create the illusion of action while steering clear of the serious negotiation needed to reach a bipartisan accord. The governor started strong by setting aside money in his budget for campaign reform, but then let the issue drop. With no leadership from the governor’s office and partisan stalemate in the legislature, meaningful reform was doomed to fail. The state’s elected leaders flunk and must repeat the course.

Assembly Democrats - Dropped the course

Minority party legislators can’t do much, but they can at least be what the British dub the "loyal opposition," dutifully calling attention to the majority party’s excesses or inaction. Assembly Democrats cannot claim to have played even this limited role on campaign finance reform. Unlike the minority party in the Senate, precious little was heard from Assembly Democrats on reform issues. Democratic members of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee did make a good faith effort to work with Republican members, but to no avail. The caucus as a whole, however, chose to sit this one out.

Assembly Republicans - F

Together with Senate Democrats, Assembly Republicans killed campaign finance reform. Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen kept meaningful reform legislation bottled up while orchestrating the passage of bills that were sure to die in the other house. All the while, he made the problem demonstrably worse by spearheading fund-raising activities during the session that further eroded public confidence in the integrity of the legislative process and accelerated the campaign arms race.

Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee chairman Steve Freese deserves credit for trying to broker a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive reform legislation. Ultimately, however, the Assembly passed a bill that promised public grants to candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending, but provided no funding source for the grants. The bill was deservedly labeled a sham and was pronounced dead on arrival in the Senate. It was indicative of how Assembly Republicans conducted themselves all session on campaign finance - heavy on political cover and light on substance and sincerity.

Senate Democrats - F

Senate Democrats spent the session under the thumb of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, who kept them in a stall, holding hearings and creating a moving policy target by regularly shifting their position on reform issues. Senate Democrats started out demanding 50% public financing, but when Senate Republicans came perilously close to offering as much public money for election campaigns, they upped the ante to 75%. In the waning days of the session, they passed a bill calling for 58% public financing for legislative races, safe in the knowledge the bill would be rejected out of hand by the Assembly. In the session’s eleventh hour, they also passed a version of reform for Supreme Court races that Assembly leaders already had pledged never to schedule for debate.

While playing games on the reform front, Chvala and his Senate Democrats raised money for the next election with a vengeance. Legislative fund-raising for the 2000 elections is up 61% over 1998, thanks in no small part to the zeal with which Chvala was soliciting campaign donations.

Senate Republicans - E for Effort

Senate Republicans didn’t accomplish a thing, which is no surprise considering their minority party status. But they embraced positions they had long opposed, most notably reversing their longstanding objection to the use of tax money to finance election campaigns. Senator Mike Ellis deserves most of the credit. Ellis crafted a proposal calling for over $3 million in public financing for candidates, and sold it to the majority of his colleagues in the Senate Republican caucus. He was one of only a handful of legislators who spent appreciable time, energy and political capital on this issue, and was arguably the only member of the legislature to show any real passion for the cause.

Governor Tommy Thompson - D

In the early part of last year, it looked like the governor was on his way to earning high marks on reform. He reversed his opposition to the use of tax dollars for campaigns, even setting aside $750,000 in his proposed budget as a down payment on any reforms the legislature might pass. For all practical purposes, his advocacy ended there. The governor was not heard from again until he pledged in his State of the State Address to sign any campaign reform bill that reached his desk - a nice but empty gesture considering it was clear by that time that leaders in the Assembly and Senate had no intention of working out an agreement on reform. Governor Thompson didn’t work to kill reform the way legislative leaders did, but he didn’t use his considerable power the way he does when he really cares about an issue.