For Release: Tuesday - November 10, 2015
The late evening of Friday, November 6th, and the early morning of Saturday, November 7th, 2015 are two days that will live in infamy in Wisconsin. Forever.
On that day, the Wisconsin State Senate finally convened in "extraordinary session" after the sun went down, to consider and vote on two measures that, if enacted into law, will quite literally shroud the State Capitol's denizens even more from public view by expanding the ability of secret special interest money to influence the outcome of elections, shape public policy-making in the Capitol, and enhance the opportunities for political corruption to occur without detection.
Scarcely a month ago, no one in Wisconsin – other than the legislative Republicans and their special interest allies and confidantes – had any idea what was contained in either of these far-reaching measures. Not the media, not any good government groups, not the Democrats, and least of all – not you – the public. No one knew about this other than a small, exclusive group of GOP legislators and lobbyists. In short order, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) unveiled the legislation, quickly scheduled it for a single joint committee legislative public hearing in Madison, rammed it through the Assembly and State Senate Elections Committees and, after a brief pause caused by minor disagreement among some State Senate GOP Senators with some provisions in the measures – forced an agreement. And then, with everyone singing from the same hymn book, both measures were scheduled for debate and votes on a Friday evening, so that virtually no one would pay attention to the wholesale slaughter of transparency and the ability to ferret political corruption out of state government in Wisconsin.
The first measure up for preordained adoption and passage by the GOP-controlled State Senate was what we have been calling Campaign Finance Deform – Assembly Bill 387/Senate Bill 292. Changes from the Assembly legislation (Assembly Bill 387) that passed two weeks ago, were not even made public until 5:00 PM and finally, closer to 8:00 PM debate began, while most Wisconsinites were finishing Friday fish fry dinners and recovering from a long work week. At almost exactly Midnight, the State Senate passed the horrendous measure on a 17 to 15 vote, with Republican State Senator Rob Cowles of Allouez joining all 14 Democrats in opposition. Before the vote on final passage, the Democrats offered 13 amendments that were all defeated on party-line votes. The legislation:
* Codifies into law the ability of candidates to be able to collude and coordinate with outside special interest groups in campaigns as long as the outside groups avoid using a few selected and limited words in their communications, such as "vote for" or "defeat" or "support." This is what is known as "express advocacy." Outside communications that use virtually any other words, however negative or laudatory, can be coordinated with candidates and, furthermore, require no reporting of disclosure of the donors. This is relatively unprecedented in the nation. Only Florida allows this. But the Wisconsin measure goes even further than Florida by allowing coordination between candidates and outside groups who engage in express advocacy as long as the "primary purpose" of the outside group is not to engage in express advocacy! What it all means is that a tsunami of secret money from within and outside of Wisconsin can flood our elections to influence our votes. No other state allows for as many opportunities for political money to escape simple, basic disclosure as this legislation will allow in Wisconsin. The purpose is simple: to keep Wisconsinites as ignorant as possible about who is influencing elections and controlling public policy-making in this state.
* Allows political parties and legislative campaign committees (slush funds controlled by state legislative leaders) to collect unlimited corporate and other money for distribution to candidates and allows them to run undisclosed phony issue ads and to coordinate with phony issue ad groups. This will greatly empower the major political parties in the state but, much more alarmingly, will vastly increase the power of legislative leaders with unlimited political money to bestow upon, or withhold from candidates, at their whim, and to crush any dissent and threaten with primary opposition those legislators who defy the leaders and try to exercise independent judgment or dissent. This was at the heart of the 2001-2002 Legislative Caucus Scandal – political money in the Capitol compromising and undermining pubic policy-making. This provision will lead to far more secret money and opportunities to engage in illegal activity without detection.
* Eliminates the currently required information about employers from individuals who make political contributions to candidates for state office. All that will be required to be reported will be the name, address and occupation of the donor. Which tells the public very little about her or him.
Republican legislative proponents of AB 387/SB 292 have continually made the completely false and erroneous claim that they "had to" craft this legislation in order to bring Wisconsin into "compliance" with the Citizens United vs. F.E.C. U.S. Supreme Court decision of 2010 and because of other court decisions since that time. While some revisions to Wisconsin's decades-old campaign finance law are necessary, the revisions in this legislation most certainly are not required. Coordination can still be limited and disclosure can certainly be required. This measure was specifically designed to shroud Wisconsin in an impenetrable veil of secrecy and dark money, destroy transparency, and inject Wisconsin with an unlimited and inexhaustible supply of special interest money to ensure Republican control of state government for the near and distant future. That's hardly democracy.
After Midnight, and into the early morning hours of Saturday, November 7th, the State Senate then considered and passed the Assembly Bill 388/Senate Bill 294 – the dismantling and destruction of the 8-year-old, nonpartisan Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. The vote – at 2:26 AM – was 18 to 14: all Republicans in favor; all Democrats opposed. Twelve Republican Senators who voted for this legislation, essentially flip-flopped in their support for the GAB since 2007 when they all vote to establish the non-partisan GAB. Nothing changed in the intervening 8 years except the politics. So these 12 State Senators were all for the GAB before they were against it.
The hyped charges and accusations made against the GAB, its longtime legal counsel and director, Kevin Kennedy, and against the retired judges themselves were vicious, scurrilous, hyperbolic, exaggerated, and – largely – just untrue. But the right-wing echo chamber faithfully repeated the misinformation continually, the real facts be damned. And there were other, more practical, hyper-partisan political reasons to destroy the GAB. Revenge and the unquenchable thirst for absolute control over a state agency that had the independent power to investigate political corruption, trumped the truth. AB388/SB294, as amended:
* Gets rid of the six non-partisan judges and replaces them with two six member commissions, one for elections and one for ethics, comprised of partisan political appointments – 3 Republicans and 3 Democrats – which all but guarantees tied votes and, therefore, gridlock and inaction. The State Senate added two retired judges to the ethics commission only, but it is unclear how they will be selected and whether they must be impartial or not.
* Gets rid of Kevin Kennedy. He has overseen elections and campaign finance law in Wisconsin for more than 30 years, capably and in a scrupulously non-partisan manner. He will be replaced by two administrators who will be selected by partisan legislative leaders.
* Most significantly, it eliminates the independent, "sum sufficient" funding for investigations by the GAB into possible political corruption (being perpetrated by legislators, for example). This was the absolute most critical and central provision of the creation of the GAB in February, 2007. Without it, the GAB is under the complete control of the legislative leadership. This independent stream of funding for investigations acted as a huge preventative tool for corruption in the Capitol. Without it, the GAB will be feared by no one and ignored by most. That is by design. The GAB will be transformed into another WEDC – a toothless, ineffective state agency with no ability to effectively enforce election, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying law. And it will likely be utilized as a tool to aid in the achievement of the partisan political goals of the leaders of the Legislature and the Governor.
The Assembly is tentatively scheduled to come back to Madison (at considerable cost to you, the taxpayer) on Monday, November 16th to vote on the Campaign Finance Deform and GAB Destruction legislation passed by the State Senate while you were sleeping this past weekend.
This is no time to just shrug and say there is nothing you can do. There is plenty we can do. Contact your State Representative and tell her or him to oppose and vote against the GAB Destruction and Campaign Finance Deform legislation passed by the State Senate. If you are not sure who your State Representative is, go here.
Above all, never give in. Never surrender. On Wisconsin!
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