By Dan Sinclair
In a lengthy session stretching from last Friday night to the early hours of Saturday morning, the Wisconsin Senate voted to approve a pair of bills making significant changes to the state’s campaign finance laws and election oversight. The latter provision entailed an official plan to replace Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board (GAB), a nonpartisan elections and ethics board. Republican legislators had made both issues a priority in recent months, with last weekend’s vote coming less than a month after legislators held a hearing to propose sweeping changes.
The passage of both proposals was expected, and happened on nearly strict partisan margins –Rob Cowles of Green Bay was the only Republican to vote against the campaign finance bill, while the elections board measure passed on 18-14 party lines.
The campaign finance bill introduces some drastic changes to the state. Currently, donors to state-level campaigns or political parties in Wisconsin must disclose their employers. The Senate bill passed on Friday would do away with that requirement, a change seen largely as a response to widespread boycotting of businesses following the passage of Wisconsin’s controversial Act 10 legislation. Supporters of the change say it is a protection on free speech while opponents insist it only protects corporations trying to influence elections.
Disclosure of campaign donors remains a hot-button topic in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Speaking at the College of William & Mary last Thursday, Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel highlighted the agency’s increased emphasis on transparency of political contributions. The FEC recently unveiled a beta version of a new website aimed at allowing the public to more accurately and comprehensively track campaign donations from across the country. Of course, even Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the controversial Citizens United majority opinion, admits that his faith in disclosure as a panacea for campaign finance troubles might have been a bit misplaced.
The Senate bill also narrows the restrictions on coordination between political campaigns and third-party groups, many of which do not disclose donors. The GAB held extensive investigations about the alleged improper coordination between conservative political groups and the Scott Walker gubernatorial recall campaigns Increases in contribution limits and an inflation indexing scheme are included in the bill to align Wisconsin’s campaign finance system, which Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald termed “illegal” in light of recent court decisions, with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 .
The election board bill, set to replace the GAB with a standalone Elections Commission, passed with unanimous Republican support, but not before a substantial amendment was added to change the makeup of the Commission. Under the plan unveiled last month, the Elections Commission was to be made up entirely of partisan appointees, nearly identical to the construction replaced by the GAB eight years ago. The amendment introduced in Friday’s special session added back two positions for retired judges in an effort to protect the Commission from the partisan gridlock that has plagued similar institutions.
The Wisconsin State Assembly is expected to pass both modified measures next week, at which point the bills will go to Governor Scott Walker for approval.