Lobbyists can pass along campaign contributions from political action committees and others at any time, even during budget deliberations and the rest of the legislative session, state election officials say.

The Government Accountability Board voted unanimously Wednesday that a law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in March broadened rules for lobbyists by lifting time constraints for when they can deliver such contributions.

The move was supported by Republican legislative leaders and lobbyists, but government-transparency advocates slammed the decision.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, accused lawmakers of trying to make “it easier for lobbyists to peddle influence” and then bullying the GAB into agreeing with their interpretation of the law, despite a drafting error made in crafting the measure.

Lobbyists passing along campaign contributions on behalf of others has been allowed for decades, but previously it was permitted only from June 1 through the day of the general election in November.

The limited time window now applies only to lobbyists’ personal campaign contributions, and the new law expanded that window so it starts on April 15 and ends on election day.

Staff members for the GAB originally said a drafting error in the legislation banned lobbyists from ever passing along others’ contributions to candidates.

But that interpretation drew criticism from Republican leaders in the Legislature and others. On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, sent a letter to Thomas Barland, the board’s chairman, and the other former judges on the GAB urging that they reconsider the staff interpretation.

Vos and Fitzgerald argued that the language of the measure allows lobbyists to make most campaign contributions at any time, while the specified time periods only applied to lobbyists’ personal contributions.

“We believe that this is the only logical interpretation of the statute, and fear that other interpretations could lead to confusion, inadvertent non-compliance, and costly litigation against the state,” Vos and Fitzgerald wrote.

Board member Elsa Lamelas agreed, saying she had a difficult time understanding how Jonathan Becker, administrator of the GAB’s ethics division, interpreted the new law as banning lobbyists furnishing contributions for others.

“I really just don’t understand your thinking as to why that would be,” she said.

Becker said he reconsidered how to interpret the law, adding that he now believes the law allows for lobbyists to pass along contributions at any time.

The board decided 6-0 that timing limitations for lobbyist campaign contributions to candidates apply only to personal contributions, and not those that they are delivering on behalf of others. They said those could be delivered at any time.

That interpretation is different than how lawmakers described the measure as it was passing the Legislature and being signed into law. At the time, they said it was widening the time window for lobbyists’ contributions but leaving other rules the same.

Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, acknowledged that there had been an inadvertent drafting error. She said discussions about today’s decision would be “in the mix” as lawmakers go about overhauling the state’s campaign finance and elections laws.

“I expect a lot of activity around elections legislation between now and January,” Lazich said.

But McCabe said the situation showed a double standard, where lobbyists and wealthy special interests were getting special treatment.

“Regular people are expected to obey the letter of the law, but lobbyists and their big-donor clients are given the benefit of the doubt,” McCabe said. “These kinds of accommodations are never made for regular folks.”

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State Government Reporter for Wisconsin State Journal