Small Change Buys Big Change

For $1.05 per taxpayer, reform bill would dramatically cut big money influence over elections and lawmaking, WDC analysis shows

January 7, 2002

Madison - If the leading campaign finance reform measure under consideration in the state legislature had been in effect in the last election, legislative candidates would have raised $6 million less from special interest donors and campaign spending would have been reduced by nearly $2 million, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported today.

The legislation - Senate Bill 104 - would place new restrictions on campaign contributions, limit campaign spending and provide partial public financing of election contests. Its cost is estimated at just under $4.1 million annually, which amounts to $1.05 a year for each of the state’s 3.9 million taxpayers.

According to the WDC analysis, had SB 104 been in effect:

  • Fundraising by legislative candidates in the 1999-2000 election cycle would have been cut by at least 59 percent, from $10.1 million to an estimated $4.1 million.
  • Campaign spending by legislative candidates would have been reduced by at least $1.9 million, or 23 percent.
  • The cash advantage incumbent legislators enjoyed - which ran as high as $14 for every $1 their opponents had in the final months before the election - would have been wiped out.

SB 104 also would have had a profound impact after the 2000 election, dramatically cutting campaign fundraising during the first six months of 2001 when lawmakers were crafting the state budget but also looking to amass large campaign war chests to give them a huge leg up in the next election.

Because SB 104 prohibits campaign fundraising during the state budget process, fundraising over the first six months of 2001 would have been cut from $1.8 million to $182,722, a 90 percent reduction, if the legislation had been in effect.

A Democracy Campaign study released in September showed that state lawmakers offered an array of tax breaks, pork barrel spending and other budget favors worth $819 million - or $211 per taxpayer - to special interests who made record campaign contributions while budget decisions were being made.

"For one dollar and five cents per taxpayer, we could have reforms that put a stop to the fundraising practices that resulted in the state budget being auctioned off to the highest bidder," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said.

The fundraising and campaign spending limits in SB 104 along with the public grants called for in the bill also would have made the 2000 elections more competitive by leveling the playing field for all candidates, he said.

If SB 104 had been in effect and a candidate raised the small contributions needed to qualify for a grant and did not raise another penny after that, the worst that could have happened is the candidate would have been outspent by a 2-to-1 margin, McCabe said. That compares to the 14-to-1 fundraising advantage incumbents held over the candidates challenging them for their offices heading into the stretch drive of the 2000 campaign, he added.

McCabe said another benefit of SB 104 is that there likely would have been a significant reduction in the number of uncontested legislative races. In the 2000 election, 40 percent of incumbents faced no major party opposition.

"What we have now is a wealth primary that weeds out a large number of qualified candidates before a single vote is cast. People of modest means look at the war chests of the current office holders and conclude it’s not worth trying," he said. "If the reforms in Senate Bill 104 had been in place, voters would have had more choices on the ballot and state legislative elections would have been more competitive. That’s not a bad return on an investment of a dollar and five cents."

Senate Bill 104, authored by Neenah Republican Michael Ellis, was approved in July on a bipartisan vote by the Senate Judiciary, Consumer Affairs and Campaign Finance Reform Committee. In October, it cleared the Senate Organization Committee and now awaits action in the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

The bill:

  • Limits spending by candidates for governor to $2 million. (Former Governor Tommy Thompson spent $7.1 million in the 1998 election.)
  • Limits spending by Senate candidates to $120,000 and limits Assembly candidates to $60,000. (Candidate spending in the 2000 election cycle reached a high of $409,557 for a Senate campaign and $316,655 for an Assembly campaign.)
  • Provides candidates who agree to the spending limits public grants equal to 45 percent of their campaign costs.
  • Provides matching grants to candidates who limit their spending but have special interest campaigns run against them or who face opponents who refuse to abide by the spending limits.
  • Bans fundraising during the state budget process.

  • Eliminates the leadership-controlled legislative campaign committees.

A Buck Well Spent