A federal appeals court ruling on key elements of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws is spurring calls for an overhaul of the state’s regulations.
The ruling also has prompted questions about whether it would have an impact on a separate investigation into alleged illegal campaign coordination.
Republicans and some advocacy groups say Wednesday’s decision in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was a victory for free speech, and makes it clear that the state’s campaign finance laws are overly restrictive and urgently need to be updated.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, promised Thursday to revamp the laws.
“I will be leading the Assembly efforts,” Vos said. “I hope to work with Mary over the summer and do something right away next year.”
But Democrats and groups that support aggressive regulation of campaign spending say the ruling struck a blow against transparency and will fuel more secret money flowing into Wisconsin’s elections.
“Today freedom and democracy took a harsh blow in Wisconsin,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee. “Common sense campaign finance laws were in place to protect our state from corruption and undue influence from money and special interests.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker said the “issue is not on our agenda.”
Joe Zepecki, a spokesman for Walker’s likely Democratic challenger Mary Burke, could not be reached for comment.
The ruling, written by Judge Diane Sykes — a former member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court who was appointed to the federal court by President George W. Bush — is just the latest to loosen restrictions on campaign spending. It found Wisconsin elections officials overstepped their bounds in governing so-called issue advocacy and how outside groups spend during elections.
For example, it said Wisconsin’s ban on corporate political spending is unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. It also lifted time restraints on some issue ad spending, and found some registration and reporting requirements for organizations that sponsor independent expenditures to be unconstitutional.
The ruling will likely have little effect on the 2014 elections, as state elections officials had already agreed to stop enforcing laws related to these issues, said Milwaukee-based attorney Mike Maistelman.
But Maistelman called it a “victory for John Doe defendants,” referring to issue advocacy groups under investigation for allegedly coordinating with campaigns.
Lazich, chairwoman of the Senate elections and urban affairs committee, applauded the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the case, Wisconsin Right to Life v. Barland.
“There is a consensus continuing to develop about protecting all forms of speech from government regulation,” she said.
But Democratic leaders and election watchdog groups warned that the court’s ruling hurt election transparency.
Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said it assures issue advocacy groups that they can continue to boost or attack candidates with “phony issue ads” and do so without disclosing the source of funding so long as they avoid the “magic words,” such as “elect” or “defeat,” aimed at a particular candidate.
“It keeps the issue-ad loophole open,” McCabe said. “These are political attack ads. They’re run weeks before an election. They demonize some candidates and they sing the praises of others. It’s obvious they’re being done for a political purpose.”
Spokespeople for the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in Wisconsin, and the state Justice Department, said they were reviewing the decision.
Dan Romportl, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the senator was also reviewing the decision.
“Sen. Fitzgerald is still reviewing the decision, and expects to consult with the Attorney General’s office in the near future on the practical impact of the ruling,” he said.
Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison-based campaign finance attorney, said the decision makes it clear that the government’s authority to regulate political speech and spending extends only to money raised for express advocacy, not issue advocacy.
He said that he hoped the “strong language” of the opinion would motivate lawmakers and the GAB to update state laws.
The ruling did not address corporate contributions to candidates, but rather independent spending, he added.
“I think the decision is extremely clear,” Wittenwyler said. “The Legislature needs to adopt more crisp, clear campaign finance statutes.”
His comments were echoed by attorney James Bopp, counsel for Wisconsin Right to Life.
“Wisconsin campaign-finance law is like the Titanic after it has hit the iceberg. After multiple court decisions, the law has so many holes that it can’t float,” Bopp said. “Wisconsin needs to rewrite its law in a constitutional way.”