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Observer: Landmark Campaign Finance Ruling 'Opened Floodgates' in Wisconsin

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It’s been five years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on campaign finance, and political observers say the decision has changed the political landscape.

In the case of Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, the high court ruled in January 2010 that corporations are people and can spend money trying to influence elections. And corporations and unions have spent plenty.

“The floodgates have opened, and democracy is drowning all across the country, and here in Wisconsin, too,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the liberal group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending in the state.

“For instance, the Koch brothers have spent more than $5,000,000 in this state, not only to help (Gov.) Scott Walker along, but also to get rid of a couple school board members all the way down at the Kenosha school board. That’s how far down ticket the money is going these days,” Rothschild says.

Rothschild also cites Gogebic Taconite, the Florida firm trying to open an iron-ore mine in northern Wisconsin. The company gave $700,000 to the Wisconsin Republican Party during legislative recall elections in 2012.

“And after those recalls, the Republicans in the Legislature passed a mining bill that was partially drafted by the company. So it was a good investment for the company,” Rothschild says.

Rothschild also points to a decision federal Judge Rudolph Randa issued last September, pushing the door open wider. He lifted the $10,000 cap on what an individual could give in one election season in Wisconsin.

Rothschild says both rulings make ordinary citizens bystanders in the political process.

“What person in Wisconsin, what average person in Wisconsin can take out their checkbook and write a check for a million dollars and send it to the political party of their choice?” he says.

Chris Murray agrees some constituents may be losing out in the wake of Citizens United, although for a different reason.

Murray, a lecturer with Marquette University’s Les Aspin Center for Government, says the new ability of candidates to raise loads of money seems to create a never-ending campaign cycle.

“The time that they spend raising money is time that they can’t spend doing other things, whether that be meeting with voters or if it’s a member of Congress, working on legislation or spending time in their district,” Murray says.

Even though liberals blame conservative groups and corporations for pumping big money into politics, Murray says that accusation is not completely fair. He says Democrats and unions have also been able to raise plenty - look at President Obama’s campaigns, the most expensive and successful political fundraising operations ever. And Murray says it remains unclear how or if campaign contributions sway voters.

“It’s an easy argument to make that this money is leading to certain outcomes, but I think it’s much more difficult to actually prove that,” Murray says.

One observer who sees a far-reaching impact of Citizens United is Rick Essenberg, founder of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. He says the ruling made clear that government cannot restrict giving to groups that advocate for issues and candidates.

Essenberg calls it an important protection.

“If you want to, under certain circumstances, to have disclosure requirements, so you know who’s spending the money, that’s one thing. But attempting to restrict it or limit it, runs directly contrary to the very idea of having robust protection for freedom of speech,” Essenberg says.

At the state Capitol Wednesday, Assemblywoman Lisa Subek is expected to introduce a bill that would place an advisory referendum on the November 2016 ballot. It would ask Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution essentially overturning Citizens United.

Voters in Milwaukee County passed similar advisory referenda last year.