Campaign Finance Reform Needed to Fix Budget Mess

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

January 11, 2002

Wisconsin’s state budget is a shambles, and there’s no shortage of excuses for how we got in this king-size mess. 

Some blame it on the "terrorist economy." Others say the sales tax rebate we got a couple of years ago was a shortsighted ploy to win votes that left the state with no rainy day fund for when times inevitably got tough. Still others insist it was years of mismanagement – budget after budget built on unsound fiscal foundations – that finally came home to roost. 

There’s probably some truth in all the explanations, but there’s another cause of the budget meltdown that we all have to come to terms with if Wisconsin’s fiscal affairs are going to be straightened out. 

The state budget is the victim of political corruption. The same kind of political corruption that has embroiled Wisconsin’s partisan legislative caucuses and top legislative leaders in the widest and deepest political scandal in recent memory. 

The budget quite literally has been put up for sale to the highest bidder, and the auction is costing ordinary taxpayers a bundle. Lawmakers from both parties who crafted the budget offered an array of tax breaks, pork barrel spending and other budget favors worth $819 million – an amount equal to $211 for every Wisconsin taxpayer – to special interests who contributed a record $1.6 million while budget decisions were being made. 

The cost of this budget pork is only a partial accounting of the cost of political graft in Wisconsin – $211 for each and every taxpayer for just this one piece of legislation, the state budget bill. Read the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s analysis of special interest pork here.)

In the last year, numerous lobbyists have come to us and described in explicit detail the shakedowns they've experienced at the hands of legislative leaders. Some were threatened with a loss of access if their clients didn’t make the campaign donations leaders sought. Others were told in no uncertain terms that they would not get items they desired in the budget unless they made the campaign contributions leaders demanded. They were told how much they had to give and to whom the donations should be given. Call it what it is – extortion. 

If the governor and legislature are serious about fixing the broken budget in the short term, a good place to start would be to revisit the $819 million worth of payoffs elected officials gave their big campaign donors. But over the long haul, budget reform is not possible without campaign finance reform. 

If the leading campaign reform measure under consideration in the state legislature had been in effect this past year, lawmakers would not have been able to raise a penny during the state budget process. Campaign fundraising in the first six months of 2001 would have been cut from $1.8 million to $182,722 – a 90 percent reduction. 

At a cost of a mere $1.05 per taxpayer, the legislation – Senate Bill 104 – would place new restrictions on campaign contributions, limit campaign spending and provide partial public financing of election contests. If Senate Bill 104 had been in effect during the last election, legislative candidates would have collected $6 million less from special interest donors. 

For one dollar and five cents per taxpayer, we could have reforms that put a stop to the fundraising practices that have caused the state budget to be sold to wealthy campaign donors. The public policy auction that wound up costing every taxpayer well over $200 would no longer be held.