February 6, 2016

Elections and campaign reform bill ready for Assembly vote

A big elections and campaign reform package is headed to a vote in the state Assembly with many of the most contentious elements stripped out. Members of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee voted 8-1 to advance the amended bill (AB 225) to a vote in the full chamber on Wednesday.

One new provision would double individual donation limits to Assembly and Senate candidates and statewide offices, including governor. Current individual amounts are $500 for Assembly races, $1000 for Senate campaigns and $10,000 for constitutional offices. “A 500 dollar limit was pretty low, a thousand dollars for a Senate seat was pretty low,” said Representative Cathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), the committee chair.

The contribution limits have been unchanged since the 1970s. Representative Terese Berceau is a Madison Democrat who supports the changes. “I don’t know how we can quantify more money since Citizens United,” Berceau said. “Really, it is unlimited money and whoever can raise the most. And right now, Republicans have a significant advantage over Democrats.” She said Democrats, who rely more on small donors, would benefit from the change. The limits would be tied to the Consumer Price Index and subject to biennial review.

Representatives of organizations who testified against the omnibus legislation when it was introduced a week ago found the changes contained in the amendment a mixed bag. Jay Heck with Common Cause in Wisconsin was pleased that provisions of the bill dealing with disclosure of outside groups spending on Wisconsin elections,voter ID, and the state Government Accountability Board, have been taken out. Other parts of the bill remain problematic. “This bill keeps in the ability of lobbyists to make contributions (to legislative campaigns) earlier in the process,” Heck noted. “We need that like we need a hole in the head. We don’t need lobbyists giving money earlier and more often. This a package that could have been worse. It’s better. The fact that it’s bipartisan is significant.”

“We like seeing online voter registration,” said Andrea Kaminski with the League of Women Voters. It legislation sets up online voter registration for people with valid drivers licenses or state issued I.D.  Still, Kaminski expects the most objectionable provisions of the bill will back later. “This amendment now has removed the most onerous, restrictive provisions for voters, but all of those things have been introduced individually. They’re not behind us yet.”

“I don’t necessarily think that this bill is a Christmas present to us,” said Berceau. “I totally anticipate that there may be a downside that comes later. We know that.” The only member of the committee to vote against the bill on Monday, Representative David Craig (R-Big Bend) said he still had questions.

In a sign that the measure may have prospect of passage in the state Senate, Senate President Mike Ellis told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he supports the concept of raising campaign contribution limits and allowing online voter registration, but would still need to look at the entire bill.

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