Democrats in the Wisconsin Assembly recused themselves en masse from a Wednesday evening vote on a contentious GOP proposal to reshape the state's campaign finance laws. The bill passed shortly before 8 p.m. with the unanimous support of the chamber's Republican members, with no Democrats casting votes.
The minority party has staunchly opposed the bill from the outset, arguing it would open the door for corruption and expand the influence of money in politics. Democrats cited state statute 19.46, which prevents public officials from "taking any official action substantially affecting a matter in which the official ... has a substantial financial interest."
"Because the bill has a direct financial interest for myself ... I feel it is necessary to recuse myself given the direct self-interest that this bill provides for members of this body," said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, leading the arguments.
Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said he has "no right to vote" on an increase in payment for himself or his campaign committee. Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, said the bill would be "more palatable" if legislators had waited until after the current election cycle to consider it.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, accused Democrats of setting a "seriously dangerous precedent" by recusing themselves, noting legislators could make the same argument for voting on the state budget or issues that affect their hometown.
"I have never been so disappointed in the members of the minority," Vos said.
Vos said Democrats took their leadership's cue to "walk off a cliff" and called their actions "silly in the extreme."
The Assembly voted in 2013 to approve bill that would have doubled campaign contribution limits. That bill passed the chamber on a voice vote, but failed to pass in the Senate.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, said he was saddened to see Democrats engage in a "stunt." Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, called on the minority party to "stop the theatrics," arguing that if legislators never voted on campaign finance rules, "we will operate under the current existing state law throughout history forever."
"Is that what you want? Because that doesn't sound very progressive to me," Neylon said.
Republicans also noted that statute 19.46 also does not "prohibit a state public official from taking official action with respect to any proposal to modify state law or the state administrative code."
But Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said this bill is different from past proposals, arguing that it's a "personal conflict of interest for a politician to rewrite the rules to favor themselves."
Republicans backing the proposal say the legislation is necessary to bring the state's statutes up to speed with several court rulings governing campaign finance, and say the bill is designed to protect First Amendment rights to free speech.
The legislation would double the amount of contributions that state and local candidates could receive from individuals, and would adjust that limit for inflation every five years.
Under the bill, political parties and legislative campaign committees could make unlimited donations to a candidate committee.
The bill would allow legislative campaign committees and political parties to receive unlimited contributions, with the exception of a $12,000 per year limit on PAC contributions to those committees and parties.
The legislation would also allow unlimited contributions to be made to and transferred between political action committees.
The proposal would ban candidates from coordinating with outside groups on express advocacy — calls to vote "for or against" a candidate — but would place no restrictions on coordination on issue advocacy. Issue advocacy avoids telling voters to elect or defeat a candidate and instead focuses on a candidate's policies. The state Supreme Court ruled in July that kind of coordination is legal, as a matter of free speech.
Campaign donors would no longer be required to disclose their employer under the bill. Instead, they would be required to list their occupation. Currently, donors who give more than $200 are required to list both pieces of information.
A spokeswoman for the governor's office said the office will review the proposal, but did not indicate whether Walker supports it as-is. A spokeswoman for Fitzgerald said the senator expects changes may be required for the bill to gain traction in the Senate.
Earlier Wednesday, the Assembly approved a proposal that would split the state's elections agency into two agencies both run by a bipartisan panel of appointees, rather than the retired judges who currently oversee elections and ethics issues. Two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it.
The Assembly on Tuesday voted on party lines to pass a bill that would limit the scope of crimes that can be investigated in a John Doe probe to the most severe felonies and some violent crimes, meaning campaign finance and ethics violations could no longer be subject to a John Doe.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, has said the slate of bills marks "the end of clean, open and transparent government in Wisconsin."