Democratic state senators have joined with clean-government advocates in rolling out a package of eight bills to strengthen Wisconsin campaign finance laws.
At a news conference in Madison June 7, state Sen. Chris Larson introduced his “Campaign Integrity” package, which 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.”
“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,” Larson said.
For emphasis, he and other speakers at the news conference 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.
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 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, leaving the public unable to connect the dots between lawmakers’ actions and the agenda behind the donations they received.
“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 misrepresent the facts — or outright lie. He said that the nation’s shrinking number of reporters makes keeping up with today’s ubiquitous misinformation campaigns a daunting task.
The package of reforms
Larson consulted with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause to author seven of the eight bills included in the package:
- Sensible Limits Act limits contributions to PACs, legislative campaign committees and political parties to $10,000. Exceptions are allowed for candidates contributing personal funds to their own committees.
- 10K Limit Act decreases the amount that individuals and candidate committees can contribute to statewide candidates from $20,000 to $10,000 — the limit before last year.
- Limiting Special Interest Influence Act reduces by half — back to pre-2016 levels — the donation limits on PAC contributions to candidates.
- Closing the PAC Loophole Act closes a loophole in the legal definition of a PAC that groups use to bypass donation limits.
- Issue Ad Reporting Act was written by Sen. 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.
- 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.
- No Corporate Campaign Bribes Act prohibits a corporation, cooperative association, labor organization or federally recognized American Indian Tribe from contributing 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.
- 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.