Monday, June 10, 2013

Campaign Finance & Election Bill Undergoes Big Changes for Committee Vote Today: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Press Release
June 10, 2013

Jay Heck – 608/256-2686

Campaign Finance & Election Bill Undergoes Big Changes
for Committee Vote Today: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Vote on Revised Package Expected as Early as Wednesday in the Full Assembly

As we reported to you on Friday, the fast-tracked, hyper-partisan package of mostly onerous campaign finance and election measures contained in newly introduced Assembly Bill 225 just ten days ago would be undergoing major revisions before being voted on by the Assembly Campaign and Elections Committee today, and considered by the full Assembly this Wednesday.

Here is a rundown of major items that have been added and subtracted (as of now) to make AB 225 both better and worse:

OUT: One of our major concerns in the bill was the inclusion of what we call the "WMC (Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce) provision" that would have codified into law the ability of outside special interest groups to keep secret their donors if they ran widely-disseminated communications in the period prior to an election as long as they didn't use express advocacy -- which are the so-called "magic words" like "vote for" or "defeat" or "support" or "elect." Under current Wisconsin law, these groups do not report their donors when they run "phony issue ads" even now because Wisconsin has yet to pass a meaningful disclosure law. The "WMC provision" would have "clarified" and formalized this into law and made needed disclosure even more elusive. Happily, it is now out of the bill -- as is a provision formalizing the ending of a 107-year-old Wisconsin law banning corporate contributions in Wisconsin elections.

IN (New): The doubling of all contribution limits in Wisconsin elections, including the amount of special interest money the two major political parties and the four legislative campaign committees can accept from the current $150,000 to $300,000 every two years. The limit for statewide candidates is raised from the current $10,000 to $20,000 during the four-year election cycle; for candidates for the State Senate from the current $1,000 to $2,000 for the four year election cycle and for Assembly candidates from the current $500 to $1,000 for the two-year election cycle.

Obviously, this will mean more money in Wisconsin elections. And more special interest money. More money in our politics is not the direction we ought to be heading. But Republicans and Democrats alike argue that the contribution limits haven't been raised in decades and a dollar today buys far less than it did in 1983. Also, these contributions must be fully-disclosed. Still, this cannot be considered "reform" -- it is more gasoline on the fire of an ever-increasing amount of money in state politics.

What should be done in Wisconsin if we are going to go down this road is something that happened in the federal McCain-Feingold reform law more than a decade ago. Then, contribution limits for candidates for the U.S. Senate and House were more than doubled, but there was also major disclosure of outside special interest group donors put into the law and thus, more transparency in federal elections. Similarly in Wisconsin, the doubling of disclosed contribution limits for candidates for state office would be somewhat easier to swallow if the bipartisan electioneering disclosure legislation introduced earlier this year by State Senators Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) and by State Representative Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah), Senate Bill 166 were added to this package. Without it, the additon of this "doubling" provision moves us backwards -- not forward -- regardless of a bipartisan agreement to do this.

OUT: A whole host of bad, restrictive provisions concerning the currently stalled-in-the-courts restrictive and extreme Wisconsin photo voter I.D. law and other limitations on the ability to vote. The provision that would have permitted a voter without one of the limited, proscribed forms of I.D. to cast a ballot if they signed a sworn statement that they are too poor to get that proscribed form of I.D. or that it is against their religion to do so, or that they are unable to get the I.D. is gone. We thought this "affidavit option" to be too restrictive and even humiliating. There are better ways to do this. Gone also is the provision ending weekend voting and establishing uniform polling place hours throughout the state -- regardless of the population of the county.

IN (New): On-line Voter Registration. At last, a measure designed to increase the numbers and make it easier for citizens to register to vote and expand participation in our elections instead of attempting to decrease voting. This is a welcome addition. It is also apparently one of the major "trade-offs" made between Republicans and Democrats in order to secure bipartisan agreement for this latest package. State Representatives Terese Berceau (D-Madison) and Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) are now "on board" and that would suggest many more Democrats are as well. So much-needed bi-partisanship may have been achieved.

OUT: Doubling the number of “candidates” to fill vacancies on the six-member Government Accountability Board (GAB) from which the Governor can choose – to find one more to his (or her) liking and who is more “partisan-friendly. The GAB is just fine as it is. Good move cutting this provision.

IN (Still): Extending the period of time when registered lobbyists can contribute to campaigns and allowing them to do so six weeks earlier in election years. We need this like we need a hole in the head.

Overall, the package is less onerous than it was last Friday. There is some bipartisanship -- which is good. Some of the most odious provisions of Assembly Bill 225 are out -- also good. But some remain in the bill and, of course, the doubling of campaign contributions is not "reform." The Ellis-Erpenbach-Kaufert electioneering disclosure measure should be added to this package.

Furthermore, there is always the strong possibility that an anti-disclosure measure and more restrictions on voting could resurface in other legislation. Or, by amendment when the Assembly considers this package on Wednesday. Or in the State Senate.

We still hate the process by which this entire package was brought forward. It should not be done when the state budget and other hot-button issues like abortion, tax cuts, voucher schools, jobs and other matters are vying for the attention of Wisconsin citizens and the media. There is no compelling reason to be doing this now. Campaign finance and election reform -- or "deform" (as the case may be) ought to be undertaken after the budget is completed and other issues are not competing with this one.

The stakes are too important.

But today the package will likely advance in the committee -- and be considered by the full Assembly on Wednesday. Of course anything could happen given the furtive and expedited manner in which this legislation has been handled. We will be watching.

Updated 6/10/2013 - 2:37 PM

Jay Heck, Executive Director
Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 W. Johnson St., Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703


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