State law would exempt political groups behind issue ads from disclosing donors and allow lobbyists to funnel donations to candidates under two bills being fast-tracked in the state Senate.

The bills, introduced by Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, were introduced late Monday and are scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Elections and Urban Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The bills, SB 654 and 655, join a raft of other election-related bills awaiting action in the Senate, including bills doubling campaign donation limits, amending rules for recall elections, limiting in-person absentee voting and creating a voter photo identification requirement. Republicans are still sorting out in closed caucus meetings which bills will be voted on this session.

Lazich said SB 654 clarifies “vague and nebulous” regulations for groups engaged in candidate advocacy, as opposed to what is known as issue advocacy. The bill specifies certain words and phrases that signal a group is engaged in candidate advocacy, such as “vote for/against,” “elect,” “defeat,” and “reject.”

Jay Heck, executive director of elections watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin, said if the state wants to require more financial disclosure from issue advocacy groups, the bill is a step in the wrong direction.

“This further shields the people from knowing who the donors are for many of the campaign-type ads that run during election years,” Heck said.

Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison lawyer and expert on campaign finance law, said the bill won’t change much. The language has been part of state administrative code since 2001.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Board, the state’s nonpartisan elections agency, approved additional rules giving itself discretion to classify whether political advocacy was campaign-related or issue-related. But both liberal and conservative groups filed lawsuits saying the rule infringed on free speech rights. The GAB settled the lawsuit in 2010 by agreeing not to enforce the new rules.

GAB officials declined to comment on the bills Tuesday. Director Kevin Kennedy was preparing testimony for Wednesday’s public hearing, spokesman Reid Magney said.

Lazich said SB 655 makes several changes to state law in response to court decisions and GAB recommendations. The changes include increasing the spending threshold for when a group has to register a campaign committee from $25 to $500.

Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an elections watchdog group, criticized a provision in the bill that would allow lobbyists to take checks from political donors and provide them to campaigns directly throughout the year.

“It creates a more direct connection between lawmaking and fundraising,” McCabe said. “I don’t think it’s a good thing.”

Wittenwyler said the provision would help smaller lobbying groups that don’t have a separate political action committee that can make contributions to candidates year round.

Lobbyists are allowed to make personal contributions to candidates between June 1 and Election Day. The bill would move the date back to when candidates can begin the campaign registration process for an election, which for a regular election is April 15.


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