Today, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released a new report finding that Wisconsin’s campaign finance system is broken and badly in need of reform. Report from NYU’s Brennan Center Finds Wisconsin’s
Campaign Finance Laws Lacking, Urges Reforms

National Think Tank Urges Full Disclosure of Phony Issue Ads,
Lower Contribution Limits and Improvements in Public Financing

February 20, 2007

New York – Today, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released a new report finding that Wisconsin’s campaign finance system is broken and badly in need of reform.

The report, Campaign Finance in Wisconsin, is the first of five studies of campaign finance systems in the Midwest to be released by the Brennan Center. The study finds that sham issue ads – advertisements masquerading as issue advocacy that plainly support the election or defeat of a candidate – are creating massive opportunities for special interest groups to corrupt Wisconsin’s political process.

“Spending on campaign commercials disguised as ‘issue ads’ has exploded in Wisconsin over the past ten years. In last November’s election, almost $15 million in undisclosed, unregulated special interest money made its way into Wisconsin’s election campaigns through thinly veiled issue advertisements,” said Michael Waldman, the Brennan Center’s Executive Director.

“These ads are making a mockery of Wisconsin’s campaign finance system and opening the door to corruption of the political process,” said Waldman.

As of December, 2006, the report finds, 16 states had laws regulating communications timed to influence elections. The report documents the impact of Wisconsin’s failure to adopt similar legislation. “The result is clear: huge sums spent on campaign advertising are exempt from disclosure requirements. To this day the public remains in the dark about the financing of electioneering ads in Wisconsin,” said Suzanne Novak, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center and the lead author of the report.

In addition to regulating sham issue ads, the report recommended that Wisconsin take action to reduce personal and PAC contribution limits and update its public financing system.

Specifically the report found that Wisconsin’s campaign contribution limits are the highest in the Midwest – and among the highest in the nation. “Limits of $10,000 per individual and $43,128 for a Political Action Committee have barely any impact on the ability of wealthy interests to co-opt candidates,” said Novak.

The report lauded the design of Wisconsin’s public campaign finance system, but called it, “in dire need of updating.”

“Candidates need an incentive to opt in. We can’t expect them to take public financing if it means unilaterally disarming against a well funded opponent,” said Novak.

The Brennan Center recommended that Wisconsin update its system by developing a funding mechanism to replace or augment the current tax check-off, so that maximum grants can be provided to all candidates who qualify for them. The report also recommended raising voluntary spending limits for candidates participating in the public financing program, so that such candidates can get their message out. Finally the report recommends implementing a matching funds provision that would allow participating candidates to respond to high-spending candidates and independent expenditure campaigns.

Local advocates welcomed the Brennan Center’s report and urged the Governor and Legislature to act on its recommendations.

“This report makes clear that Wisconsin’s campaign finance system has fallen into disrepair and our state is lagging behind other states in the region in keeping special interest money out of politics,” said Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC).

“Wisconsin voters deserve the chance to elect people who aren’t beholden to lobbyists and big money,” McCabe said. “This report provides a clear headed analysis of the problem and a solid foundation for reforms that will level the playing field and give regular people a fair shot at being heard in Madison.”