Culture of corruption

Wisconsin's lax campaign finance laws create a culture of corruption.

Andrey Burmakin

Democratic state senators have joined with clean-government advocates in rolling out a package of eight bills to strengthen campaign finance laws.

At a press conference in Madison yesterday, state Sen. Chris Larson introduced a “Campaign Integrity” package that he and other supporters said would bring back fair elections to Wisconsin.

“Most of these reforms were the law 20 years ago,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. “Sen. Larson and others here today (are) trying to get us back to 1998.”

Heck said Wisconsin once was known for having among the most transparent election laws in the nation. But those laws have been either relaxed or eliminated by Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature’s Republican majority.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Republicans overhauled the state’s campaign finance laws to allow candidates to coordinate their strategies directly with political action committees. Republicans said the state’s previous law banning such coordination was at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which extended free-speech rights to corporate entities.

Clean-government advocates point out that PACs are not required to release the names of their donors or their donors’ employers. That, they say, throws a veil of secrecy over special interests’ donations to individual candidates; the public is unable to connect the dots between specific legislation and the special interests that used their money to influence it.

“The idea that money represents free speech is antithetical to America and the American way,” said state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff. “Everyone is supposed to have access, but it’s the people who have the most money who have access.”

Brostoff noted that a lot of PAC spending goes to character-assassination ads and commercials that feature misrepresentations of facts — and outright lies. He said that the nation’s shrinking news media corps is unable to keep up with today’s ubiquitous misinformation campaigns.

“It is our right as citizens to have a strong voice in a healthy democracy and not to be buried by the bags of corporate special interest money that are now free to be dumped into Wisconsin campaigns,” said Larson. For emphasis, he

and other speakers at yesterday’s presentation stood near a pile of white sacks marked with dollar signs.

Supporters of the campaign finance bills emphasized that the issue is bipartisan. State Sen. Dave Hansen pointed out that the GOP has supported clean elections in the past.

“If you take the polling out there, the survey would say (Republican voters) don’t want that kind of money out there either,” Hansen said.

The package

Larson consulted with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause to author seven of the following eight bills included in the campaign finance package:

LRB-1290: The Sensible Limits Act restores contribution limits to $10,000for PACs, legislative campaign committees and political parties. Exceptions are allowed for candidates contributing personal funds to their own committees. This proposal also prohibits political parties and legislative campaign committees from establishing segregated funds to use for general purposes, which are used to work around donation limits.

LRB-1291: The 10K Limit Act decreases the individual and candidate committee contributions limit from $20,000 to $10,000 for statewide candidates. The limit was $10,000 prior to last year.

LRB-1292: The Limiting Special Interest Influence Act reduces by half — back to pre-2016 levels — the donation limits on PAC contributions to candidates.

LRB-1293: The Closing the PAC Loophole Act closes a loophole in the legal definition of a PAC that groups use to bypass donation limits. This proposal defines a political action committee, for campaign finance purposes, as a committee that spends more than $1,000 in a 12-month period on expenditures for express advocacy or any other campaign purposes.

LRB-1294: The Issue Ad Reporting Act was authored by Senator Jon Erpenbach, a longtime campaign finance reform champion. It requires transparency in political communications. Last session this bill was approved by the Senate as SB 201.

LRB-1295: The Coordination Control Act: This proposal places the same financial limits on coordinated expenditures between candidates and groups as are currently in place for direct contributions. Allowing unchecked coordinated campaign expenditures circumvents campaign donation limits, inviting corruption and immense special interest influence.

LRB-1296: The No Corporate Campaign Bribes Act prohibits a corporation, cooperative association, labor organization or federally recognized American Indian Tribe from making contributions to segregated funds established and administered by a political party or legislative campaign committee. This closes the loophole used to funnel additional money to committees.

LRB-1297: The Transparency for Campaign Contributions Act requires any committee that receives campaign finance contributions of more than $100 cumulatively from an individual to report that individual’s place of employment and occupation. Current Wisconsin law does not require the disclosure of a donor’s place of employment, and it only requires the reporting of the donor’s occupation at the $200-and-up level.

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