October 22, 2015
Wealthy business and conservative ideological groups that collectively spend millions of dollars to support Republican legislative and statewide candidates at election time are supporting bills to weaken state campaign finance law and dismember the state’s election and ethics watchdog.
Both measures were approved Wednesday by the Assembly and now go to the Senate.
One measure, Assembly Bill 388, was approved 58-39 by the Assembly. AB388 replaces the nonpartisan, independent Government Accountability Board with two partisan commissions with limited investigatory powers.
The other measure, Assembly Bill 387, was approved 61-0. All but one Republican, who was absent, voted for the bill, and 36 Democrats were present but abstained from voting. AB387 neuters the state’s campaign finance laws by doubling campaign contribution limits to candidates; allowing unlimited donations to political parties and party committees; allowing unlimited dark money donations to so-called independent groups, which can coordinate with the candidates themselves; and dropping the requirement that donors to candidates have to identify their employer to further hide the influence peddlers.
AB388 and AB387 are supported by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business organization. WMC is one of the most influential special interest groups in the state. WMC has spent nearly $26 million on outside electioneering activities to back Republican candidates in legislative and statewide elections with smear ads and mailings paid for by secret fundraising and spending. Once elected, WMC uses its lobbying muscle to affect state spending and policy decisions on a wide array of issues including taxes, environmental deregulation, labor and education, among others.
In addition to WMC, AB388 has the backing of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative ideological group founded and funded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. Americans for Prosperity issued a statement thanking the Assembly for approving legislation to dismantle the GAB, accusing the model, independent watchdog agency of being “desperately partisan.”
The Koch brothers are longtime backers of conservative causes and Republican and conservative candidates for federal, state and local offices throughout the country. Like WMC, Americans for Prosperity refuses to disclose how much it spends on its phony issue ad activities, but the Democracy Campaign estimates the group spent nearly $5.6 million on broadcast ads and other activities in Wisconsin elections for statewide office and the legislature from January 2010 to date.
The bulk of Americans for Prosperity’s secret electioneering spending was in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections when it spent $3.7 million to help Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP state senators targeted for recall.
AB387 also drew public support from the state’s largest anti-abortion group, Wisconsin Right to Life, which applauded passage of the bill in order to relieve “unconstitutional burdens” on free speech rights.
Wisconsin Right to Life, has spent only a modest amount – about $260,000 – on outside electioneering activities during the past 16 years, but marshals a well-organized and geographically dispersed membership to get to the ballot box and later to influence the legislative agenda.