The uphill battle to reform campaign finance laws
Democrats outline a new package of proposals, but they would overturn changes passed by Republicans who still control the Legislature
Rep. Jonathan Brostoff speaks on campaign finance reform legislation that Democrats are circulating. Flanking him from left to right are Reps. Deb Andraca and Lisa Subeck, Sens. Tim Carpenter, Chris Larson and Melissa Agard, and George Penn of Wisconsin United to Amend. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
Democratic lawmakers who are circulating draft bills to tighten campaign finance laws acknowledge that their efforts face steep hurdles, including opposition from the Legislature’s Republican majority and a series of Supreme Court decisions that favored looser campaign finance laws instead.
Still, “you cannot win if you give up before the fight starts,” said state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) at a news conference this week to introduce the measures.
At the Tuesday morning news conference, Democrats pointedly noted how their GOP counterparts rewrote Wisconsin’s campaign finance law in 2015. The changes doubled contribution limits to statewide candidates, allowed unlimited contributions to political parties, opened the door to direct corporate donations and permitted previously illegal coordination between candidate campaigns and outside, anonymously funded “issue ad” groups.
“Does anyone feel like our democracy is healthier because of the changes that were made six years ago by my Republican colleagues?” asked Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison).
Six of the proposals that the Democrats outlined would roll back the 2015 law and go further by:
- Cutting contribution limits;
- expanding the definition of a political action committee (PAC) and strengthening their financial reporting requirements;
- restoring the ban on coordination between PACs or independent expenditure committees and political parties or campaigns;
- barring corporate, union or tribe contributions to campaigns or parties;
- requiring all campaign donors to list their employer;
- requiring the disclosure of donors to all politically related ads within 48 hours.
A seventh proposal would call for a statewide advisory referendum on a proposed amendment to the U.S constitution to undo the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling. That ruling allowed corporations and special interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose a political candidate. Several of the measures have been introduced in past legislative sessions.
State Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) offered a case study in the outsized influence of big donors, especially corporate ones, by pointing to the failed, bipartisan effort to get rid of the so-called dark store loophole. That’s the nickname for the practice — a result of a series of court rulings — that has enabled countless retailers to slash their property tax bills by arguing that an operating store should be taxed at the same rate as a shuttered, empty one, disregarding the income that the operating store generates for its owner.
A bill that would have allowed tax assessors to apply a higher value to operating stores than closed ones won enough Republican backing that it could have passed both houses of the Legislature. Instead, it foundered, and at the Democrats’ Capitol news conference, Subeck blamed the opposition of the state’s largest business lobbying group, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC).
“They have an incredible amount of influence in this building,” Subeck said. “And the reason they have so much influence is because they spend money on the campaigns of those in the majority party, and therefore they get to run the show. They get to be the gatekeepers and decide what legislation goes through … It’s not the average citizen who gets to make those decisions. It is those with the most money, and the biggest megaphone.”
George Penn of Wisconsin United to Amend spoke of 166 communities around the state that had passed ballot measures calling on the state Legislature to support a constitutional amendment “getting big money out of politics.” He endorsed the Democrats’ proposals as stepping stones to that larger objective.
Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) decried “millions of special interest dollars loudly changing what we see and hear about the candidates and their campaigns.”
When the lawmakers were finished outlining the draft bills, Larson was asked whether the campaign of Gov. Tony Evers should return $2.7 million collected from the Democratic Party in 2020 or $1 million so far this year, in light of the proposals that would regulate such transfers more closely.
It's not the average citizen who gets to make those decisions. It is those with the most money, and the biggest megaphone.
– State Rep. Lisa Subeck
“There’s a question of whether the Democrats should play by a different set of rules than Republicans,” Larson said. “I’m not a fan of asymmetrical warfare or unilaterally laying down our arms.”
He added, however, that the Democrats “are talking about increasing transparency, letting in the sunshine and reducing the influence of corporations over our electoral process.” Sketching an imaginary GOP press conference “about campaign integrity,” Larson said, “It would be about trying to cut off voters, it would be about disparaging democracy” and limiting access to the ballot.
A reporter raised the question of their chances of making it through to enactment — given that the party they were blaming for undoing so much of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws in 2015 still maintains a solid majority in both houses in 2021. Had the Democrats gotten any support from those same Republicans on their reform proposals? And how could they get any of them to the floor?
Brostoff replied, first with the assertion that among the Legislature’s rank and file members across the aisle there might be some covert support.
“There are a lot of Republicans who are completely fed up — even Republican politicians — with how corrupt the system has gotten and how much they have to sacrifice their own principles, their own morals, whatever they initially ran for and all the good government of Wisconsin ideology that they were raised with, in order to fulfill the wishes of their corporate overlords and puppet masters,” Brostoff said. For good measure, he name-checked WMC again, along with the GOP leaders of the Assembly and the Senate, to remove any ambiguity about who he was referring to.
Returning to those aforementioned “fed-up” Republicans who he believes chafe at the political influence of big money, Brostoff asked, “Are they willing to overcome the cowardice that’s currently stifled any movement on their end?”
And with that, he suggested that while enacting the proposals is the ultimate goal, along the way, winning isn’t the only thing. There’s also simply laying down a marker.
“I can’t control them, I can’t control anyone but myself,” Brostoff said. “But we as Democrats will keep fighting for transparency, we’ll keep fighting for integrity, and we’ll keep pushing the agenda. It’s the right thing to do, and we are not scared.”
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