Several times over the last decade, Wisconsin lawmakers have introduced legislation to change the rules for statewide election campaigns. Each time the proposals failed.

Now, however, with Democrats slated in January to control the Legislature and the governor's office for the first time in two decades, chances are better than ever for new campaign finance laws.

At his first news conference after being elected Assembly speaker for the 2009-11 session, Rep. Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, said other than closing the state's projected $5.4 billion budget shortfall, the campaign finance issue would be the Assembly Democrats' top priority. In particular, he cited requiring advocacy groups that pay for thinly veiled campaign ads, known as "issue ads," to disclose where they get their money.

"Campaign finance reform is very critical," Sheridan said at the time. "I think the citizens in this state are sick and tired not only of the bashing that people take on our television networks and on our radio stations but at their doors. It's time to look at how those rules are set up, whether it's creating transparency so we know where those issue ads are coming from."

But significant obstacles remain.

"I think the issue becomes more of a front-burner issue with Democrats controlling both chambers, but whether we'll have meaningful campaign finance reform remains to be seen," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, a leading proponent of changing campaign laws.

Among the challenges are disagreements between Democrats about how extensive the changes should be and the state's projected $5.4 billion budget shortfall, which makes one proposal - public financing of state Supreme Court, legislative and statewide races - less likely.

"If anyone is able to get public financing through this Legislature I would call them Moses," said Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison lawyer who specializes in elections and politics. "Think about it. Where would the state get the money?"

Recent and current U.S. Supreme Court cases also could affect whether or to what degree lawmakers are able to require the backers of issue ads to disclose who funds them, said Wittenwyler, who represents advocacy groups that buy the ads.

Reform history

Variations of campaign finance reform legislation have a long history at the Capitol, but each idea has hit snags under political leadership of both parties.

Most recently, Gov. Jim Doyle called a special session on campaign finance reform in December 2007.

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed bills to create a public financing system for state Supreme Court campaigns and to force advocacy groups to disclose who pays for their issue ads. Those measures failed in the Republican-controlled Assembly.

Neither chamber passed a comprehensive reform bill that called for taxpayer funding of campaigns sponsored by Erpenbach and Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah. The two say they'll reintroduce their bill next year.

But the issue gained renewed momentum this month after Democrats won control of the Assembly and elected Sheridan as speaker.

In an interview last week, Sheridan said his comments last month came amid "high emotion" over issue ads in the fall election campaign. Lawmakers are still reviewing campaign laws for possible changes, he said, though it's unclear exactly how much support there will be among Assembly Democrats to make them.

Carrie Lynch, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, said lawmakers from both chambers are still discussing what kind of proposal could pass Democratic majorities in both chambers and also pick up support from Republicans.

The state Government Accountability Board already has voted to require advocacy groups that purchase issue ads to disclose where they get their money for the ads. But that move is likely to prompt a lawsuit by groups that argue the board doesn't have the authority to regulate the ads.

But even with momentum on his side, Ellis remains unsure whether the Legislature would approve a disclosure bill for issue ads.

"These phony issue ads have taken over our elections. They're sickening, they're disgusting and they don't even have the guts to say where they get their money," he said. "I don't know what it's going to take for these people to wake up. Every candidate is getting badgered and beaten up by phony issue ads and they still won't come to the table."

Possible fundraising ban

According to lawmakers, in addition to requiring the disclosure of issue ad funders, campaign finance reform legislation could include a ban on fundraising during the budget process and public funding of Supreme Court, legislative, and statewide campaigns. Public funding would cost at least $6 million annually under terms of the Ellis-Erpenbach reform bill, while the costs of the other provisions would be negligible, officials said.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin and a proponent of overhauling the state's campaign finance system to include taxpayer funding of campaigns, said it will be easier for lawmakers to enact legislation that won't cost money.

But he and others said lawmakers could raise money for public financing of campaigns. Arizona, for example, generates $9 million annually through a 10 percent surcharge on fines and criminal penalties, said Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which supports public financing of elections.

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