Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Testimony at Informational Hearing on Campaign Finance Reform

Assembly Committee on Elections and Campaign Reform, October 8, 2009

October 8, 2009

Wisconsin used to have some of the strongest campaign finance laws in the country. We used to have an election financing system that was a model for the nation. We used to have enforceable spending limits on state election campaigns. We didn’t have the campaign arms race we have today. Candidates used to have access to a source of funds that enabled them to get their message out to voters without being either independently wealthy or dependent on the financial support of special interest groups. We didn’t have the scandals that have visited our state in recent times.

All participants in state elections played by the same rules. All the money was disclosed. Limits on campaign contributions applied the same to everyone. Candidates were front and center in campaigns. They spoke for themselves. No shadowy surrogates did their talking for them. Political parties actually mattered.

Wisconsin was known from coast to coast as a place with clean, open and honest government. Can’t say that anymore.

Today Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws are full of holes and aren’t worth much more than the paper they are written on. The state’s election financing system is unused and useless. Elections have turned into auctions. The last race for governor cost over $30 million. We saw our first million-dollar Assembly election last year and a number of others that came close to seven figures. We’ve seen state Senate elections cost as much as $3 million. Six million dollars for Supreme Court. Eight million for attorney general.

We need reform that makes people matter more than money in politics. Wisconsin has strayed a million miles from that ideal.

Three things led to the collapse of our once-effective election financing system. First, the funding source for the system was never adjusted for inflation or adapted to changing circumstances. It’s the same as it was when the system was created in 1977. It was sufficient for about 10 years and the system worked very well, but eventually candidates were no longer getting the full grants the law promised them in exchange for their agreement to limit their campaign spending. The incentive to play by the rules was lost.

A second and related cause of the system’s collapse is the fact that the campaign spending limits haven’t been adjusted for inflation since 1986. They are now ridiculously out of date and unrealistic. The limit for an Assembly race is $17,250. We just had our first million-dollar Assembly election. Who in their right mind would agree to limit their spending to $17,250 when they have to compete in a race that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and maybe even upwards of a million or more?

The third nail in the coffin was the emergence in the late 1990s of outside interest groups doing their own campaigning for or against candidates. They have been allowed to operate outside the law. The legislature and governor have never acted to require these groups to follow the campaign contribution limits that candidates have to obey, and lawmakers haven’t even updated our disclosure laws to make sure the public can at least follow the money.

Any campaign finance reform worthy of the name needs to address – and solve – each of these three problems. For starters, we need to get back to having campaign finance laws that apply to all participants in our elections. Not just disclosure of some of the money. Disclosure of all the money. Not just limits on some contributions. Limits on all contributions.

Then enforceable spending limits need to be restored. Those spending limits need to be realistic and they need to rein in spending and end the campaign arms race while at the same time enabling candidates to spend enough to effectively communicate with voters. And they need to be annually adjusted for inflation.

Enforceable spending limits have to be coupled with public financing of election campaigns. The only way the courts have permitted campaign spending limits is when candidates agree to them in exchange for public funds. There needs to be a sufficient and reliable source of funds so candidates can afford to run for public office without having a personal fortune or becoming hopelessly dependent on special interests. The old Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund doesn’t work anymore. It was renamed the Wisconsin Clean Election Fund earlier this year, but a new name doesn’t make it a sufficient and sustainable funding source. You need to create a new funding mechanism.

Other states with public financing programs for elections pay for those systems in a variety of different ways. There are some very well-tested options that are worth exploring. There also is opportunity here for innovation. But the bottom line is the funding source needs to be sufficient and it needs to be sustainable. Past mistakes embodied by the failed Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund must not be repeated. Approving campaign reform legislation that contains the same flaw that led to the demise of our old system makes no sense and gets us nowhere.

The most straightforward way to pay for an election financing program is the way our neighbor Minnesota does it – through a general fund appropriation. We are well aware that some critics of publicly financed elections have expressed objections to having their tax money given to candidates they may oppose. We take this objection on face value and assume it is made in good faith. We also strongly believe there is a way to honor this objection and still fully fund a revived public financing program for Wisconsin elections.

When it comes to spending from the government’s general fund, taxpayers are not allowed to choose which programs they want their money used for and which ones they do not want to fund. But you could give all taxpayers the ability to do just that when it comes to publicly financed elections. You could give all of us the ability to opt out of the Wisconsin Clean Election Fund, something we are not allowed to do with any other state program. In addition to that, you could do something else that Minnesota does – give taxpayers the ability to steer their money to the party of their choice.

There still will be a few who question whether any member of the public should pay for elections, even voluntarily. With all due respect, that is the wrong question. The only relevant question is how the public should pay. Because we always will pay one way or the other. There’s no way to skip out on the bill.

We can either pay for election campaigns directly – as do citizens in places as far apart both geographically and politically as Arizona and Maine – or we will pay for them indirectly, as we do here in Wisconsin every time we all have to pick up the tab for another favor our elected officials do for their biggest campaign donors.

Depending on the kind of system you put in place, the cost for publicly financing state elections in Wisconsin ranges from about $4 million a year on the low side to $10 million to $12 million annually on the high side. There are about 3.9 million taxpayers in Wisconsin. So we’re talking about somewhere between $1 and roughly $3 per taxpayer per year.

Yes, the direct way costs money, but it’s a bargain compared to the indirect way. Our research shows campaign donors who make up 1% of the state’s population get $100 in benefits for every dollar they donate. Our tally of the value of what they get from government totals more than $5 billion a year. That costs every state taxpayer more than $1,300 each and every year.

We all pay for elections, one way or the other. The real choice before us is this: We can pay millions for voter-owned elections, or billions for the donor-owned elections we have today.

The choice is a no-brainer.

Thank you for holding this hearing and giving us this opportunity to share our thoughts with you as your committee begins to craft campaign finance reform legislation.