campaign finance

EAU CLAIRE — The amount of money that individuals, candidate committees and political action committees could donate to statewide political campaigns would be cut in half under a proposal announced Tuesday by Democratic state legislators.

The proposal is part of a seven-bill “campaign integrity package” seeking to limit the influence of big money donors on Wisconsin campaigns, the Democrats said.

State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, introduced one of the bills, the Ready to Amend Act, which calls for holding a statewide advisory referendum this fall on pursuing a constitutional amendment to limit election spending by corporate and union entities.

Smith said citizens are frustrated with the American political system, which he alleged has become dominated by corporate spending and undisclosed dark money as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

“Over the last decade, citizens’ voices have become drowned out by unlimited corporate spending in our elections,” Smith said. “We must pass the Ready to Amend Act to restore transparency in our elections and ensure citizens are fairly represented in our political system.”

Under the proposal, a referendum question on the November ballot would ask voters if Congress should propose an amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling.

Twenty-two other states have passed such resolutions, along with 17 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including Eau Claire, Dunn and Chippewa, and more than 140 state municipalities, according to Wisconsin United to Amend. Smith said those jurisdictions account for 58% of Wisconsinites.

“People feel they don’t have a say because their vote is not as powerful as the money being poured into elections,” Smith said. “This referendum would give them a chance to say they think the Citizens United decision was wrong and that they think only human beings have constitutional rights and that money is not speech and therefore limiting campaign spending does not equate to limiting free speech.”

However, state Sen. Kathy Bernier, the Lake Hallie Republican who is chair of the Senate’s Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics Committee, said she doesn’t believe any of the Democratic bills are necessary.

“The regulations in Wisconsin are strict enough, and I don’t see any need for additional legislation,” Bernier said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Bernier argued that Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws are stricter than those in most other states and said Democrats are more than holding their own at raising campaign cash from corporate donors.

“I have never been in a position to sell my soul or take a different position simply because a PAC or someone contributed to my campaign,” she said.

One bill in the package would cut the amount individuals or candidate committees could give to a candidate for statewide office from $20,000 to $10,000 and set a $10,000 limit on donations to PACs, legislative campaign committees and political parties. Other bills would close a “loophole” in the definition of a PAC that Democrats said groups use to bypass donation limits and require any committee that receives campaign finance contributions totaling more than $100 from an individual to report that donor’s place of employment and occupation.

Bernier said she opposes any effort to require donors to reveal their employer, saying, “We changed that and I’m not going to even consider changing it back because it’s not my employer who’s responsible for my political contributions.”

Democrats will be seeking sponsors for the bills in the next week or so, but Smith acknowledged he doesn’t expect to attract any Republican sponsors or for the bills to get hearings in GOP-controlled legislative committees or to be brought forward for a vote.

“We just continue to introduce legislation that we believe in and hopefully public pressure will prevail in the end,” Smith said, charging that Wisconsin residents have called for improved government accountability since the Republican majority gutted campaign finance laws and passed gerrymandered maps.

Bernier said she understands that minority party members have to come out with proposals but maintained they need to work hard to get majority party support if they want their bills to be taken seriously.