Thursday, January 21, 2010

Campaign finance ruling will echo in Wisconsin

Common Cause in Wisconsin will issue a formal statement with regard to the implications for Wisconsin of today's U. S. Supreme Court decision after it's had a chance to fully digest the details contained in the decision.

High court ruling allowing more corporate election spending to have impact in Wisconsin

By Ryan J. Foley - Associated Press
January 21st, 2010

MADISON, Wis. — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that corporations and unions can spend freely to influence elections may kill attempts in Wisconsin to limit political spending by outside groups, supporters conceded Thursday.

The decision will also likely make Wisconsin’s race for governor this year an even more chaotic and expensive affair, with unions and corporations getting more involved, said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.

He predicted that campaigns and special interests will spend $75 million or more on the race to replace Gov. Jim Doyle, compared to an earlier estimate of $40 million.

“There will be much more outside spending by corporations and some unions in the elections for the Legislature, governor and the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the immediate years ahead,” he said. “This opens the floodgates to a degree.”

Doyle appeared to agree, saying the ruling was discouraging and would lead to more spending by outside groups not controlled by candidates.

Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison lawyer who represents such groups, said he believes corporations will spend the same amount of money trying to change public policy, but now a greater percentage on campaigns and less on lobbying.

The decision comes just as Heck and other campaign finance reform advocates were on the cusp of convincing Wisconsin lawmakers to enact a law meant to limit political spending by outside groups.

The Wisconsin Senate had approved a bill on Tuesday that would require groups that run election-time ads to disclose the names of their donors, face certain fundraising and spending limits, and bar them from tapping corporate or union treasuries to pay for them.

Heck said the requirement to disclose donors could still be approved this legislative session, but the spending restrictions might be dead.

“I said the other day on the Senate floor that the Supreme Court could rule all this null and void. It would look at first blush, that’s exactly what happened,” said Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, a sponsor of the bill. “I think it’s a sad day for democracy.”

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, another sponsor, said he hoped to salvage at least parts of the bill. He said the court decision will give corporations greater influence than individuals inelections by removing their spending limits. Individuals, meanwhile, cannot give more than $10,000 to a statewide candidate in Wisconsin.

Lawyers for the Assembly, where the plan has passed a committee, were reviewing the court decision to determine the impact on the bill, a spokeswoman for Speaker Mike Sheridan said. He has not decided whether to move the bill to the floor for final passage.

The Government Accountability Board has also been considering passing a similar administrative rule to regulate and require disclosure for issue ads, but had put the process on hold until the high court ruled. Director Kevin Kennedy said the board’s initial legal review found the rule should not be affected by the decision.

Wittenwyler, whose clients have threatened to sue to block the rule, disagreed, saying the rule now needs significant revisions.

The decision means corporations and unions can spend money directly from their treasuries to pay for ads that urge the election or defeat of candidates. That practice had been banned in Wisconsin since 1906, but groups got around that restriction in recent years by funding issue ads that praised and attacked candidates.

Wisconsin Right to Life called on lawmakers and the Government Accountability Board to clarify that groups such as it can now expressly advocate for state candidates. Spokeswoman Sue Armacost said the anti-abortion group may no longer need to operate a separate political action committee to endorse candidates.

“We’re extremely pleased the U.S. Supreme Court has protected our freedom of speech,” she said.

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