August 27, 2004
Nearly four years ago, voters in Wisconsin were asked: “Do you support legislation to reform the state campaign system that would limit campaign spending, require stricter contribution limits and require full and prompt disclosure of election related activities?”
Ninety percent said yes.
Since that time, I’ve heard just about every imaginable excuse for the Legislature’s stubborn refusal to do what nine out of 10 people in this state clearly want.
Actually, the Assembly’s speaker and majority leader at the time of the referendum, Republicans Scott Jensen and Steve Foti, started the dizzying anti-reform spin even before the votes were counted. They made the claim repeated countless times since – maybe the public wants campaign finance reform in the abstract, but not if it costs taxpayers any money.
The Waukesha County Board was one step ahead of Jensen and Foti. Anticipating an excuse in the making, the board asked voters in the strongest of GOP strongholds a slightly different question: “Do you support campaign finance reform legislation that would require full and prompt disclosure of election-related activities, lower contribution limits and provide adequate partial public funding to candidates who abide by campaign spending limits?”
Eighty percent of voters in Jensen’s and Foti’s home territory answered yes.
An overwhelming majority in perhaps the most Republican county in the state want campaign finance reform even if it means the public has to pick up at least part of the tab for candidates’ campaigns.
It’s hard to argue with a mandate that strong, so reform opponents didn’t try. They agreed that the way election campaigns are financed needs to be cleaned up, but argued the time isn’t right. The next election is two years away and there are so many other pressing problems to deal with first – billion-dollar budget deficits, vanishing manufacturing jobs, and a growing health care crisis. After solving those problems, then they would enact campaign finance reform, they promised.
They didn’t solve those other problems. But with the next election fast approaching, they said it would be unfair to change the rules so close to an election. It was once again the wrong time for campaign finance reform, but after the election it would be the first thing on the agenda.
Funny how things kept getting in the way. The budget mess they hadn’t cleaned up the year before. Concealed weapons. The definition of marriage. Flag desecration. Shopping cart theft even took precedence, for crying out loud.
When it became painfully obvious they were just stalling, they found a new hiding place. They sought cover in the constitution. They wanted to reform campaign finances, but the courts had their hands tied, they insisted.
Then last December the highest court in the land reduced their latest excuse to rubble, ruling unequivocally that campaign finance reform is constitutional.
Undeterred, our state lawmakers have kept right on making excuses. My personal favorite came from Representative Steve Freese, who as chairman of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee refused to hold so much as a public hearing let alone a vote on campaign finance reform legislation last session. Freese told a newspaper reporter that every time he thought he had rounded up the votes on the committee, concerned citizens would “do something stupid – like writing letters to the editor” and he would lose the support of his colleagues.
The next moment of truth comes next Wednesday, September 1. That’s when the state Elections Board is scheduled to act on a truth-in-campaigning rule requiring full disclosure of special interest campaign ads and the unlimited and anonymous “soft money” donations that pay for them.
Republicans and Democrats alike have been saying for years that maybe they can’t agree with the other side on reforms limiting campaign contributions or publicly financing election campaigns, but both sides can agree on disclosure – the bedrock principle that citizens have a fundamental right to know who is trying to influence elections, how much money is spent to bankroll the effort, and where that money comes from.
We’ll soon find out if there’s sincerity to that claim or if it’s just more double talk.
On three procedural votes earlier this year, the Elections Board moved toward adoption of the disclosure rule. But when the time came to vote on final approval of the rule in May, the board got cold feet. All of the board’s three Republican appointees and two Democratic appointees refused to vote for implementation. Instead, they put off a decision on the reform plan until the board’s September 1 meeting.
The excuses were as painfully familiar as they were lame. The timing was wrong. There are constitutional concerns.
The Elections Board has it in its power to adopt what would be the biggest accomplishment in the area of campaign finance reform at the state level in over 25 years.