Republicans unveil changes to state's campaign finance laws

A new GOP bill would overhaul the state’s campaign finance law, including allowing increases in contribution limits.

M.P. KING — State Journal

Political campaign contribution limits would double, corporate contributions could expand and political action committees could accept unlimited contributions, which they would have to report, under a bill unveiled Wednesday by Republican lawmakers.

The bill substantially rewrites Wisconsin’s patchwork of campaign finance laws and administrative rules, which have been hobbled by a series of court cases centering on whether the government can regulate political speech.

Among them was a state Supreme Court decision in July that ended a secret and controversial John Doe investigation into whether Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with political groups.

The groups argued and the court agreed that they engaged in issue advocacy that isn’t subject to regulation. Critics of the decision said it opened Wisconsin to coordination between candidates and issue advocacy groups — whose ads are commonly considered thinly veiled campaign ads — that aren’t required to disclose donors.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the campaign finance bill would “protect a free and vigorous debate,” in part by shielding issue advocacy groups from regulation. Vos said the bill would increase campaign-finance reporting requirements and “create parity” for political contributions by unions and corporations.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, criticized Republicans for wanting to make it easier for corporations to contribute.

“I find the Republican leadership priorities for the fall session disturbing and I believe citizens will react very negatively when they learn Republicans think we need even more money in our elections and that corporations need an even greater influence over our elections and state government,” Barca said in a statement.

The bill also narrows the regulation of political activity “well beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court has said is constitutionally required,” said Larry Noble, senior legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

He said the bill regulates coordination between campaigns and groups that expressly advocate for a candidate, but the U.S. Supreme Court has never held that regulation of coordination be limited to express advocacy groups. Issue advocacy groups that merely mention a candidate in an ad just before an election also can be regulated, Noble said.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, said by allowing coordination between candidates and issue advocacy groups, which don’t disclose donors, the bill brings about “almost the complete deregulation of campaign finance in Wisconsin.”

The bill requires candidate committees, political parties, legislative campaign committees, PACs, independent expenditure committees, conduits, referendum committees and recall committees to register with the Government Accountability Board or a local clerk before accepting contributions. Separately Wednesday, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to overhaul the GAB.

It defines PACs and independent expenditure groups as those that exercise “express advocacy,” which is defined as communications that contain terms such as “vote for,” “vote against,” “elect,” “support” or “their functional equivalent.” Independent expenditure groups are designed not to make decisions in coordination with candidates.

It also doubles the contribution limits for state and local office, and every five years, beginning in 2021, it requires an increase in contribution limits based on the consumer price index.

Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, lauded the contribution limit increase because it empowers candidates rather than outside groups.

“The money is coming into politics one way or another,” Esenberg said.

It allows unlimited contributions to and transfers between PACs. Political parties and legislative committees could also receive unlimited contributions, except from PACs, which would be limited to $12,000 per year.

The bill also allows corporations to contribute to referendum committees and independent expenditure groups, which can advocate for candidates but not coordinate with their campaigns. Unions can already make such contributions. Those groups would still be barred from giving to campaign, recall and legislative committees, PACs, political parties and conduits.

The rewrite also eliminates the preamble of the state’s campaign finance law, which includes phrases such as: “our democratic system of government can be maintained only if the electorate is informed,” “excessive spending on campaigns for public office jeopardizes the integrity of elections” and “when the true source of support or extent of support is not fully disclosed, or when a candidate becomes overly dependent upon large private contributors, the democratic process is subjected to a potential corrupting influence.”

Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said legislative lawyers have recommended that the language be removed because it has no force of law.

State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this report.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.