WDC Testimony on Assembly Bill 378

Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections

October 30, 2013 

Testimony against an anti-disclosure bill delivered by WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe at a hearing held on October 29, 2013.

This bill is an assault on freedom. It attacks one of the freedoms most fundamental to any functioning republic – freedom of information. It attacks the public’s right to know.

Chapter 11 of Wisconsin ’s state laws begins with the following declaration of policy: “The legislature finds and declares that our democratic system of government can be maintained only if the electorate is informed. It further finds that excessive spending on campaigns for public office jeopardizes the integrity of elections. It is desirable to encourage the broadest possible participation in financing campaigns by all citizens of the state, and to enable candidates to have an equal opportunity to present their programs to the voters. One of the most important sources of information to the voters is available through the campaign finance reporting system. Campaign reports provide information which aids the public in fully understanding the public positions taken by a candidate or political organization. When the true source of support or extent of support is not fully disclosed, or when a candidate becomes overly dependent upon large private contributors, the democratic process is subjected to a potential corrupting influence. The legislature therefore finds that the state has a compelling interest in designing a system for fully disclosing contributions and disbursements made on behalf of every candidate for public office, and in placing reasonable limitations on such activities. Such a system must make readily available to the voters complete information as to who is supporting or opposing which candidate or cause and to what extent, whether directly or indirectly. This chapter is intended to serve the public purpose of stimulating vigorous campaigns on a fair and equal basis and to provide for a better informed electorate.”

Assembly Bill 378 does violence to the public purpose so eloquently articulated by your predecessors in the legislature by radically limiting campaign finance transparency.

AB 378 would do two things, both of which are dangerous and destructive to the public interest. First, this legislation would blind the public to the financial interests of most campaign donors. Current law requires the disclosure of both the occupation and employer of any donor giving more than $100. AB 378 requires disclosure of only the occupation of donors giving over $500. Because the legal limit on contributions to candidates for Assembly is $500, passage of this bill would mean that neither the occupation nor the employer of any donor to any Assembly candidate would ever be disclosed.

Since 1996, the Democracy Campaign has enabled the public to follow the money in Wisconsin politics by managing a searchable online donor database. There are 862,064 contributions from individuals in our database. Of those donations, 825,827 or 96% are $500 or less. Contributions of more than $500 total 36,237. If AB 378 had been state law when we launched this money tracking system back in 1996, the database would be 96% smaller and would show only the occupation but not the employer of each of the donors who made those 36,237 contributions.

The second thing AB 378 would do is hinder law enforcement and make criminal activity easier . In recent years Wisconsin has seen two wealthy campaign contributors convicted of money laundering. Some of the laundered money went to Democrats and some went to Republicans. On more than one occasion, the Democracy Campaign has been contacted by law enforcement officials who asked for our assistance in identifying employees of their companies who made campaign donations. If AB 378 is enacted, such investigations would be next to impossible.

Your committee should take no further action on AB 378 and instead should go in exactly the opposite direction, strengthening rather than weakening disclosure laws.