Jay Heck

Jay Heck

Republicans have proposed a bill that makes multiple changes to the state’s campaign finance laws, and one watchdog believes the plan will lead to a full-scale deregulation of money in state politics.

The legislation includes a number of provisions, such as doubling the money individuals can give to candidates, requiring more frequent filing of finance reports, and making clarifications on corporate contributions to political parties and committees. Common Cause in Wisconsin director Jay Heck says many of those proposals are not problematic and, in the case of upping the contribution limits, make sense in the face of inflation and laws other states have adopted.

What concerns him is language that allows for open coordination between third party issue advocacy groups and candidates, something Heck argues basically invalidates contribution limits in state races. He asks “if you can give $2,000 to a state Senate candidate, and then another $200,000 to an outside group that can coordinate with his campaign, what’s the point of the $2,000 contribution limit?”

Issue advocacy groups are largely unregulated in Wisconsin. The organizations can take in nearly unlimited money and are not subject to disclosure laws. The ads they run typically seek to inform voters about a candidate or issue and avoid the so-called magic words, such as “vote for” or “defeat.” Instead, they may ask voters to “call” a candidate about their stance on an issue. Heck says very few voters make any distinction though between them and traditional political ads, so he argues they are widely viewed as either supporting or attacking a particular candidate.

Prior to a state Supreme Court decision this summer, political campaigns and those groups were not allowed to coordinate their efforts. However, in striking down a politically-charged John Doe investigation into coordination between Governor Scott Walker’s campaign and outside groups, a conservative majority on the court said that coordination is not prohibited by state law. 

Republicans backers of the measure say the language in their bill simply backs up that court ruling. In unveiling the changes this week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) asserted “even if you disagree with the court decisions, we must update our statutes so people know what the law is, what they can and cannot do.”

Heck argues that decision is far from being settled law though. “No federal court in the country agrees with that decision,” Heck asserts, adding that he’s fairly confident the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn the ruling if it is appealed. “Even the U.S. Supreme Court, which gave us the Citizens United decision in 2010, didn’t go so far as to say it’s okay to coordinate with outside groups.”

AUDIO: Jay Heck discusses the potential impact of changes in campaign finance law (:50)

If passed in to law, Heck believes it will open Wisconsin to a flood of “dark money” in political campaigns, where the public has no idea who may be bankrolling efforts to influence elections. “There’s much more money that will flow that will be totally secret…we won’t know where it’s coming from anymore,” he warns.

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