Spending Swells in Supreme Court Race

In this update: 1. Special interest spending in high court race passes $2.8 million mark 2. Board looking at election campaign rule rewrite 3. Patience with Legislature wearing thin Spending Swells in Supreme Court Race

Email date: 3/27/08

In this update:
1. Special interest spending in high court race passes $2.8 million mark
2. Board looking at election campaign rule rewrite
3. Patience with Legislature wearing thin

Spending by a handful of special interest groups aiming to determine who wins the April 1 state Supreme Court election is now approaching $2.9 million. The Democracy Campaign’s updated calculation is based on the latest television advertising data for Wisconsin’s major TV markets and estimates of the cost of advertising in other smaller TV markets in the state, radio advertising and other election communications.

In the largest TV markets, interest groups have done 93% of the campaign advertising, dwarfing the candidates’ own ad buys.

The most recent ad buy information covers advertising aired through March 23, leaving more than a week’s worth of spending yet to be accounted for. The groups will easily surpass the record for campaign spending by outside interests in a Supreme Court race - an estimated $3.1 million - set last year.

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The reason special interest groups have been able to corner the market on political speech in this year’s Supreme Court election is that they don’t play by the same rules as the candidates. The new Government Accountability Board yesterday signaled its intention to do something about that.

The Democracy Campaign’s director testified at yesterday’s meeting, as did Deborah Goldberg, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, urging the board to act to bring the state’s campaign finance rules up to date.

Wisconsin’s policies on election financing are more than 30 years behind the times, stuck in 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that election-season messages are not really aimed at influencing elections unless they contain words such as "vote for," "vote against," "elect" or "defeat." This came to be known as the court’s "magic words" test and Wisconsin embraced the test to determine which election communications are subject to disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limits and which are not.

Today, such words that supposedly distinguish electioneering from mere issue discussion rarely if ever appear in any campaign advertising, even those ads sponsored by candidates or political parties. In a 2003 ruling in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the magic-words distinction "functionally meaningless." Yet Wisconsin’s policies on campaign financing are still firmly rooted in this distinction.

The challenge for the new Government Accountability Board is to create a modern and functionally meaningful definition of what is electioneering and what is not. The board has the authority - and responsibility - to do this.

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A column by outdoors reporter Tim Eisele in The Capital Times yesterday strikes a common chord of frustration with the Wisconsin Legislature. A central part of the tale he tells focuses on observations by former Department of Natural Resources secretary and current Wisconsin Wildlife Federation director George Meyer. Meyer recounts how a bill to restore political independence to the DNR passed the Senate 21-12 and the Assembly Natural Resources Committee 13-1, yet Assembly leaders refused to schedule it for a final vote. Meyer made similar remarks at the March 13 "Unfinished Business" rally of the People’s Legislature at the Capitol. To watch video of his talk, go here. For those interested in what’s gone wrong in Wisconsin politics, Meyer sums it up nicely.