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Politics & Government

Wisconsin Legislators Plan Overhaul of Outdated Campaign Finance Laws

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As Wisconsin lawmakers grapple with their biggest challenge this year – balancing the state budget – they face another hefty project.

They plan to rework the state’s campaign finance laws, covering everything from how much people can contribute to candidates, to whether donors’ names should be made public. Some of the laws are considered outdated. A few are unconstitutional. Legislators dug into the topic Tuesday, inviting experts to testify before a new joint committee in Madison.

Wisconsin’s existing campaign finance laws have been on the books since the mid-1970s. Legislators crafted them in the wake of the Watergate scandal, according to state elections chief Kevin Kennedy. He says it’s time for change.

“Given the parade of campaign finance decisions emanating from the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as other federal courts, the current campaign finance law set out in Chapter 11 is also ‘wholly inadequate to the times,’” Kennedy says.

Decisions such as Citizens United, which removed limits on corporate campaign contributions.

So the Wisconsin Legislature has formed a committee to revamp the state’s campaign finance laws. Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign testified before the panel Tuesday. He says the law’s current restrictions about how much individuals can contribute, price most people out of having a voice in elections.

“The $10,000 limit on individual contributions to statewide candidates is already way too high. The median income in Wisconsin is about $27,500. No regular person can contemplate giving $10,000, and a gift of this magnitude itself raises the potential of a corrupting influence,” Rothschild says.

Meanwhile, Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty says “you can’t keep money out of politics.” He spoke against contribution limits.

“Limiting speech in one way will often result in speakers finding new ways to express themselves. If we restrict contributions to candidates, people will give money to independent groups who advocate for those candidates,” Esenberg says.

Esenberg says another downside to limiting individual contributions is that money might then flow to outside groups instead of the candidates. Those groups could then control the message.

Attorney Mike Wittenwyler wants legislators to make clear rules for coordination among candidates and organizations. Fuzziness seems to be at the center of a probe into Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign and conservative organizations.

Wittenwyler represents both conservative and liberal groups interested in influencing politics in Wisconsin.

He also urged the panel to spell out rules for donations that don’t come from a political organization or committee.

“They may be a wealthy individual who decides to make an independent expenditure, they could be a trade association, a labor union, an advocacy group, they could be all kinds of things, but they decide at some point in time, they’re going to tell you who they think you should vote for or vote against. You need to figure out how you’re going to regulate those groups,” Wittenwyler says.

Wittenwyler doesn’t think lawmakers should just tinker with the regulations.

“Don’t sit and edit Chapter 11. Don’t rearrange it, don’t try to tweak things. Rewrite the damn thing,” Wittenwyler says.

The legislative committee adjourned without acting on any recommendations; however, the process of amending the state’s campaign finance laws will continue.

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