Independent campaign spending reported to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board totaled $9.96 million in 2010. While that’s nice to know, Mike McCabe with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said the information on money spent really only tells part of the story. “Most of the donors who supplied the money for that spending were kept hidden. They were secret, and so the public was largely kept in the dark about the sources of money that were used for all that campaigning,” said McCabe. “On top of that, there were groups that were organized in a way that enabled them to even keep their spending a secret. They not only didn’t disclose their donors, but they didn’t even disclose the amount of spending that they did.”
Why the lack of disclosure? Jay Heck with Common Cause in Wisconsin said the reasons can be found in Washington and Madison. “Even though the United States Supreme Court gave the green light for Congress and the legislatures to pass strong disclosure legislation, congress failed to do so,” explained Heck. Disclosure legislation in Wisconsin failed because the Assembly and the Senate did not reach agreement on language. Disclosure rules promulgated by the Government Accountability Board would have required disclosure of all outside groups. “That was blocked by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a very controversial 4-3 decision in August. As a result, at both the state and federal level, the citizens of Wisconsin have no idea who spent literally millions of dollars in this campaign.”
Still, putting rules in place may not tell voters the full story, according to the Democracy Campaign’s McCabe. “Even under the rules that were approved, we wouldn’t have been able to see all the campaign donors, because of the way these outfits are organized under federal tax law,” McCabe said. “This is something the Wisconsin legislature needs to change. It’s also something that Congress needs to address.”
McCabe says there used to be bipartisan support for disclosure. “For years and years you had both Republicans and Democrats saying that they supported disclosure,” he said. “Even opponents of some forms of campaign finance reform at least stood for disclosure. But now that there’s been this court ruling saying that corporations and interest groups can spend as much as they want, now you’re seeing some of those traditional supporters of disclosure back off. It should be something that’s bipartisan. Unfortunately neither party has stepped forward and made disclosure the kind of priority that it ought to be.”
“More disclosure is better, because people then have a better idea of all the players in a given campaign, and who all the special interest groups are who are trying to influence your vote,” said Heck.