We Don’t Need More Secret Campaign Money

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

April 30, 2015

Op-ed published by the Wisconsin State Journal

At a time when a tidal wave of money is already swamping our democracy, the last thing we need is less disclosure of campaign contributions.

But that’s what Republicans in the legislature have in mind.

They recently introduced a bill, backed by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, that would prevent the public from knowing who is donating money to our legislative candidates here in Wisconsin.

Current Wisconsin law requires campaign committees to report specific information about any contributor who gives more than $100 in any calendar year. That information includes the person’s occupation as well as the name and address of the person’s employer.

The Republican bill (Assembly Bill 176) would make two big and poisonous changes to this law.

First, it would raise the disclosure threshold to more than $500 in any two-year period. This would wipe out disclosures of direct contributions to all Assembly candidates because the current law says no one can give more than $500 to a candidate for State Assembly anyway.

The current limit for State Senate races is $1,000, so the bill would wipe out the public’s ability to find out about a majority of the donors to State Senate races, as well.

Here at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, we have a database that has more than one million political contributions in it. The vast majority of these (96 percent of them) are for $500 or less.

Second, and equally troubling, the bill would delete the requirement to list the name and address of the person’s employer. This could obscure the special interests that might be getting sweetheart deals from the very officeholders they are funding.

For example, if you were wondering whether people connected to Ashley Furniture, which received tax breaks from the Walker administration, gave a lot of money to Scott Walker, it would be very difficult to find out. For one thing, the owners aren’t named Ashley; they’re named Wanek. And if they listed their occupation only as “manufacturers,” you might never know that they and their spouses gave $30,500 to Walker in the last five years, or that six other employees gave a total of $1,300.

Hiding contributors is not what the U.S. Supreme Court had in mind, even in its notorious Citizens United decision. In it, Justice Kennedy wrote that disclosure is necessary so “citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests ... This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions.”

In another case that same term, Justice Antonin Scalia was even more adamant about disclosure. “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,” he wrote in John Doe v. Sam Reed. Letting people be “hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism,” said Scalia, “does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”

Wisconsin citizens have a right to know who is funding our elected officials.

Please urge your legislator to vote no on Assembly Bill 176.