Sen. Larson Leads on Campaign Finance Reform

February 6, 2019

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

Sen. Chris Larson, Democrat from Milwaukee, is taking the lead in the Wisconsin State Senate on the urgent issue of campaign finance reform.

He is introducing what he calls the “2019-2020 Campaign Integrity Package,” which consists of nine bills. These bills would go a long way toward rectifying the damage that was done when the GOP leadership disastrously rewrote our campaign finance law back in 2015.

“Powerful special interest groups and wealthy corporations continue to have an overwhelming and growing effect on elections across Wisconsin and nationwide,” Sen. Larson says. These bills “address our most damaging campaign finance problems.”

One of the bills, which is entitled the “No Corporate Campaign Bribes Act,” would ban corporations, labor unions, tribes, and other groups from donating to political parties and legislative campaign committees. In the last session, such donations amounted to $1.7 million. For more than 100 years prior to the 2015 rewrite of our campaign finance law, corporations and other groups were not allowed to make such donations. (The Legislative Reference Bureau draft number for this bill is LRB-1094. Sen. Larson is the lead sponsor in the Senate, and Rep. Jonathan Brostoff is the lead sponsor in the Assembly.)

Another bill, the “Communications Transparency Act,” would lift the lid on the dark money that has flooded into Wisconsin elections. It would require so-called “issue advocacy” groups to disclose the names of any donors who gave them $100 or more in the preceding 12 months. Now we’d know who is paying for the mud that’s splattering on our screens at election time. The bill would also require the reporting, within 48 hours, of any mass communication that costs more than $500 and is made within 60 days of an election. (Sen. Larson is the lead sponsor in the Senate.)

Another important bill, the “Coordination Control Act,” would prohibit unlimited donations to “issue advocacy” groups that are coordinating with candidates. Instead, those donations would not be able to exceed the limits on direct contributions to candidates. Under the 2015 law, a candidate may coordinate with these outside groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from their donors, thus making a mockery of the limits on direct contributions to candidates. The bill also redefines “coordination” to mean that the candidate or candidate’s agent “exercises control over or engages in substantial discussions or negotiations” with the outside electioneering group. The 2015 law made it almost impossible to convict someone of illegal coordination because it defined coordination much more narrowly. (This bill is LRB-1093. Sen. Larson is the lead sponsor in the Senate, and Rep. Jimmy Anderson is the lead sponsor in the Assembly.)

Four bills would lower donation limits.

One of them, “The Sensible Limits Act,” would place a $10,000 ceiling on donations to political parties and legislative campaign committees. The 2015 law let rich people give unlimited amounts to these groups, which may then turn around and give that money to the candidates. (This bill is LRB-1088. Sen. Larson is the lead sponsor in the Senate, and Rep. Melissa Sargent is the lead sponsor in the Assembly.)

A similar bill, the “Stop Unlimited Contributions Act,” would also limit the transfer of funds between political parties and legislative campaign committees. (This bill is LRB-1319. Lead sponsors of the bill are Rep. Sargent in the Assembly and Sen. Larson in the Senate.)

The “Restoring Reasonable Limits Act” would lower the individual donation limit to $10,000 for candidates running for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, and secretary of state. The 2015 law had raised it to $20,000. (This bill is LRB-1089. The lead sponsors are Sen. Larson and Rep. Sargent.)

The “Special Interests Limitation Act” would also cut in half the amount that the political action committees may contribute to candidates. (This bill is LRB-1090. Sen. Larson is the lead sponsor in the Senate, and Rep. Christine Sinicki is the lead sponsor in the Assembly.)

The last two bills would eliminate defects that the 2015 law introduced.

The “Closing the PAC Loophole Act” would require any group that spends more than $1,000 on express advocacy to register as a political action committee in Wisconsin. The 2015 law allowed national PACs to avoid registering unless they spend more than half their money in Wisconsin, and most don’t. (This bill is LRB-1091. Sen. Larson is the lead sponsor in the Senate, and Rep. Anderson is the lead sponsor in the Assembly.)

And the “Contribution Sunshine Act” would require campaign committees to identify the employer of any donor who gives more than $100. The 2015 law took this requirement away, and by so doing, obscures the influence that a company may be exercising. (This bill is LRB-1095. Sen. Larson is the lead sponsor in the Senate, and Rep. Brostoff is the lead sponsor in the Assembly.)

Sen. Larson and the other lead sponsors of these bills are doing a great service to our democracy here in Wisconsin.