WDC testimony on Ellis-Erpenbach Bill

WDC testimony on the Ellis-Erpenbach campaign finance bill. Testimony of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to the Senate Education, Ethics and Elections Committee

February 12, 2003

Thank you for this opportunity to offer testimony on Senate Bill 12.

If enacted, this legislation would alter the political landscape in Wisconsin and would put an end to corrupt practices that have taken root in our state and have brought scandal to the Capitol.

Let me tell you what the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign likes about SB 12…and what we think could be improved upon.

First, the bill’s strengths. Senate Bill 12:

  • Is bipartisan.
  • Would bring the political arms race to a screeching halt, putting campaign spending limits in place that would sharply reduce campaign spending in the most competitive races.
  • Restores meaning to campaign finance disclosure in Wisconsin by closing the loophole for phony issue ads.
  • Levels the playing field in election campaigns by providing substantial public financing to candidates, which will bring back into the democratic process people who have been priced out of the political marketplace. And the bill provides a guaranteed funding source for the grants, ensuring that the promise of public financing will not be an empty one.
  • Prevents campaigns from being hijacked by wealthy special interests by providing supplemental grants to publicly financed candidates to match campaigns run against them by special interest groups or opponents who refuse to limit their spending.
  • Takes the state budget off the auction block by banning campaign fundraising during the budget process.
  • Clamps down on the growing practice of laundering campaign money through out-of-state committees. If SB 12 is enacted, corporate contributions from Wisconsin utilities will no longer be made to the Kansas Democratic Party and then rerouted back to an in-state campaign front group like Independent Citizens for Democracy.
  • Loosens legislative leaders’ control over other members of the legislature by getting rid of the leadership-controlled legislative campaign committees as we know them. These committees are one of the powerful tools legislative leaders have used to transform our legislature from one of the nation’s most decentralized to one of the centrally controlled.

And notably…

  • The bill does not contain the blatantly unconstitutional poison pill that was inserted in last session’s campaign reform law. And unlike last session’s Act 109, SB 12 is not written in a way that causes it to be nullified in its entirety if any one part of the law is found to be to be unconstitutional.

Senate Bill 12 does many other worthy things - placing limits for the first time on special interest conduits and banning PAC-to-PAC transfers, for example - but my intent here is to restrict our comments to the bill’s major features.

We do, however, want to call your attention to a couple areas of weakness in the bill.

Contributions Limits

SB 12 makes no change in the individual contribution limits in current law. We believe these limits - $10,000 to a statewide candidate, $1,000 for the Senate and $500 for the Assembly - are much too high. And we believe leaving these high limits in place is a missed opportunity to wean candidates from such heavy reliance on a handful of big donors who are now bankrolling the vast majority of the cost of campaigns.

In the 2002 governor’s race, three-quarters of the money raised by the two major party candidates came from just 1,193 people. These donors represent three one-hundredths of 1% of the state’s taxpayers.

We recommend cutting the limit on contributions to statewide candidates from $10,000 to $1,000 and cutting the current donation limits for legislative races in half. We also believe the aggregate annual cap limiting what an individual donor may contribute to all candidates in a calendar year should be reduced from $10,000 to $5,000.

Lower contribution limits are clearly constitutional. A little over three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Missouri’s $1,000 cap on contributions to candidates in statewide elections. More recently, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld even lower limits in Vermont - no more than $400 from an individual contributor to candidates for governor, for example.

6% Threshold for Qualifying for Public Financing

Currently, candidates have to get 6% of the primary vote to qualify for public financing. SB 12 makes no change to this requirement. We believe the vote threshold should be reduced or eliminated altogether. We’ve suggested a reduction from 6% to 2% in past proposals we’ve made, but this issue has been given very little attention in past legislative sessions. Ed Thompson’s campaign highlighted how requiring 6% of the vote in primary elections that don’t allow cross-party voting serves as an unfair barrier to independent or third-party candidates. The reality is that it is highly unlikely Brett Favre could reach this primary threshold running as an independent or third-party candidate in a system that doesn’t permit cross-party voting. The 6% rule not only prevents legitimate candidates from getting public financing, but it also was used by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association to exclude third-party and independent candidates from the gubernatorial debate the association sponsored. This arbitrary barrier should be removed or at least lowered.

Thank you for this opportunity to offer our feedback on Senate Bill 12.