Thursday, October 15, 2009

CC/WI Legislative Testimony - October 2009

Testimony of Jay Heck

Executive Director of Common Cause in Wisconsin

October 14, 2009

Assembly Committee on Elections and Campaign Reform

“Clean Elections Tour”

Franklin, Wisconsin

Chairman Smith, Representative Stone and Member of the Committee,

On behalf of the State Governing Board of Common Cause in Wisconsin and our more than 3,000 members from all over Wisconsin, I commend and thank you for holding these hearings on campaign finance reform and public financing in various parts of the state. Giving citizens outside of Madison an opportunity to testify about the need to clean up state politics is welcome and needed and will hopefully provide this committee with fresh ideas and perspectives not heard before.

We are very encouraged that both the full Assembly and the State Senate stand on the verge of considering and passing two very significant campaign finance reform measures that will go a long way toward cleaning up Wisconsin’s once nationally respected and revered reputation for honest, clean politics – a proud heritage that has deteriorated steadily and almost completely since the late 1970’s when public financing was first established in this state.

Passage of the Impartial Justice bill – which will provide full public financing to qualified candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court who abide by spending limits of $400,000 – is welcome and needed, particularly after the $6 million nasty, demoralizing state Supreme Court elections of 2007 and 2008 and the only slightly less expensive court election earlier this year.

In all three elections money ruled.

The phony issue ad disclosure and regulation legislation will finally provide some transparency and accountability in all state elections and is the single most important campaign finance reform measure since public financing was first established in 1977.

But that still leaves the question of what needs to be done to reform Wisconsin’s legislative and statewide elections system that has been in almost total disrepair since 1986. Fortunately, there is no shortage of very good suggestions about what can be done and models that can be examined to come up with a campaign finance system that makes sense for Wisconsin. Maine, Arizona and Connecticut have all established 100 percent public financing systems that work well, that enjoy the high confidence and trust of their citizens and that have strong, bipartisan support.

Closer to home is our neighbor Minnesota, which actually modeled its campaign finance system after Wisconsin’s in the late 1970’s but, unlike Wisconsin, continually tweaked and improved its system to keep pace with the increasing costs of campaigns and to make their system more attractive to candidates and to the public.

Compare the fact that there is almost one hundred percent participation by statewide and legislative candidates in the public financing system in Minnesota and that all abide by spending limits with the fact that there is participation by only a few candidates -- and none in competitive elections -- in Wisconsin’s broken system and that there has been spending of up to $1 million in Assembly elections, $3 million in State Senate races and $35 million for Governor -- suggests that the Gopher State does elections in a far more sane and sensible way than we do.

Minnesota provides public financing for 50 percent of the spending limit, not 100 percent like Arizona, Connecticut and Maine but it is, for the most part, a very effective and popular system where issues and ideas trump money in elections.

Even if we will never get Brett Favre back, we can borrow a lot from Minnesota’s public financing of elections and thereby greatly improve our own system.

CC/WI first proposed changes to Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws based on Minnesota’s system in 1998 and in early 1999. Representative Steve Freese of Dodgeville and State Senator Brian Burke of Milwaukee introduced a bipartisan, comprehensive Minnesota model plan for Wisconsin. As this committee puts together comprehensive legislation, that measure would be well worth revisiting.

Likewise, a decade ago, and also with CC/WI’s strong support, Senator Michael Ellis first proposed what was then and still is a revolutionary, bipartisan comprehensive campaign finance reform plan for Wisconsin. He was soon joined by Senator Jon Erpenbach and together they have offered six versions of “Ellis-Erpenbach” over the years--the latest version in the form of Senate Bill 221 and Assembly Bill 388. In November of 2007, Governor Jim Doyle included Ellis-Erpenbach as the central piece of his proposed legislation for a Special Session on Campaign Finance Reform. That Special Session ended with no action by the Legislature in May of 2008. But there is much in this package of reforms that ought to be part of any comprehensive legislation this committee constructs.

For example, Ellis- Erpenbach increases the current and inadequate $1 check off for public financing on the state income tax form to $5 with a partisan option (as Minnesota does) to make checking off the money more attractive. (It would not increase tax liability or decrease the refund by $5). It creates an additional source of public funding for candidates through the creation of a Public Integrity Endowment (PIE) to be set up and administered through the Government Accountability Board. Individuals, unions, corporations, foundations and anyone else interested in cleaning up state government could contribute to the PIE and be eligible for a 100 percent tax credit. (There is currently no additional source of public funding--only the $1 checks off). And if those two funding mechanisms do not provide sufficient revenue for full funding candidate grants and matching funds, a sum-sufficient appropriation is made.

The current Ellis-Erpenbach legislation provides candidates with full funding for public grants equal to 35% of revised spending limits if they agree to abide by the revised spending limits ($4 Million – Governor; $700,000 – Attorney General; $150,000 – State Senate; $75,000 – State Assembly). In other versions, public financing has been as high as 45% of the spending limit – the same level as current law.

Ellis-Erpenbach provides complying candidates who abide by spending limits with additional public funding equal to the amount over the spending limit that their non-complying opponent spends--up to three times the spending limit. (There is currently no such provision in place).

Additionally, it provides candidates who are the targets of outside spending by independent expenditure groups or those who run so-called "issue ads" (that depict a candidate 60 days or less before the general election or 30 days or less before the primary) with public funding matches – of up to three times the spending limit. (There is currently no such provision in place).

Ellis-Erpenbach has a very carefully and bipartisan-negotiated system for qualification for public financing that ought to be considered in any measure this committee constructs.

Ellis-Erpenbach prohibits campaign fund-raising by legislators and statewide elected officials from the time after the election when the governor or governor-elect is preparing the biennial state budget to be introduced until it is enacted into law. This prohibition would apply to declared candidates for legislative and statewide office as well.

And Ellis-Erpenbach abolishes the four legislative campaign committees -- which legislative leaders have utilized to decrease the independence of legislators and which have created, at the very least, the appearance of corruption through the solicitation of campaign contributions in return for the consideration of pending legislation. (Currently, LCCs collect hundreds of thousands of dollars of special interest money).

So between Minnesota, Ellis-Erpenbach and what other states such as Connecticut, Maine and Arizona have done, there are plenty of great ideas about what could be included in an appropriate package of public financing and other reforms for Wisconsin.

We think it most prudent to include several different funding mechanisms in any public financing package. If one method proves to perform less well than expected and turns out to be inadequate or is curtailed in future legislation, then there should be other forms of financing so that the system doesn’t succeed or fail on just one method – as Wisconsin’s has failed with sole reliance on the inadequate $1 check off on the state income tax form. All states with successful public financing systems have at least two sources of funding. Ellis-Erpenbach has three. The funding for any campaign finance reform needs to be sufficient and adequate or it will be ignored – as Wisconsin’s insufficiently funded program is now.

Comprehensive campaign finance reform measures and public financing must have bipartisan support. It makes no sense to pass a totally partisan measure because it is likely to be completely dismantled when the other political party gains a majority. Reform needs to be acceptable to both sides in order to work and to last.

I would hope the members of this committee would invite and include reform ideas from other legislators who have been active in trying to reform Wisconsin’s campaign finance system over the years so that they will support and feel ownership for whatever package you come up with. One thing I have learned over my 13 years at CC/WI. There are at least 99 different ideas of what the best campaign finance system ought to look like in the State Assembly and at least 33 in the State Senate. Then there is the Governor’s and other statewide office holders and there are the plans of the various public and special interest organizations. Agreement on any plan will require compromise and no one will get everything they want. But it is imperative that you get the job done.

One thought to keep in mind as you go through this process. Contrary to the myths propagated by opponents of campaign finance reform – the citizens of Wisconsin overwhelmingly want sweeping reform of the current system and have for a long time. In 2000, a state-wide advisory referendum asked whether citizens thought there should be spending limits in campaigns and disclosure of the donors to campaigns. Just shy of 90 percent of the people of this state voted "yes." And in one county a further question was asked: "Do you support public financing of elections of state candidates who abide by spending limits?" The number of voters answering in the affirmative was also overwhelming – more than 80 percent. And no, that question was not asked in Dane County where such support for public financing might be expected. More than four out of five voters in Waukesha County supported public financing.

So do not shy away from public financing, but rather embrace it. It is far preferable that candidates be beholden to the taxpayers of Wisconsin for the funding of their campaigns than to special interest groups that currently fill that void. Wisconsinites understand that fact.

This committee can and must produce a measure that will restore Wisconsin to its rightful place as a national leader in clean, honest and accountable state government; restore citizen confidence – now at an historic all-time low – in our state elections and in our compromised and corrupted public policy-making process; and finally, help erase the stain of shame and infamy that continues to cast a shadow over Wisconsin since the eruption of our worst political scandal since the 1800’s – the Legislative Caucus Scandal back in 2001.

It has been almost seven years since criminal charges were made against Wisconsin’s top legislative leaders of both political parties for crimes connected to illegal campaign fund raising. Wisconsin is more than ready for a new, clean system to be crafted and put into place so that we can all be proud of Wisconsin again. And be better than Minnesota.

Common Cause in Wisconsin stands ready and eager to assist you in cleaning up Wisconsin’s elections and thereby the public policy making process that follows those elections.

Thank you.