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Wisconsin Senate Ends Long Session by Approving Changes to Campaign Finance Laws

Early Saturday, the state Senate voted to raise the amount of money individuals can contribute to state candidates, to allow third party groups and campaigns to coordinate activities - as long as those outside groups don't explicitly tell people to vote for or against a candidate, and to scrap the Wisconsin law that has required donors to identify their employer. The vote was 17 to 15, with Green Bay Sen. Rob Cowles being the lone Republican to join Democrats in opposing the changes.

Opponents insist the updates will make government and politics more secretive; supporters claim Wisconsin's law needed updating because of recent court decisions that have upheld the free speech rights of individuals and groups of individuals when it comes to spending money to influence elections. 

Earlier during the Friday/Saturday marathon session, on a 18-14 party line vote, the Senate approved dismantling the Government Accountability Board. Instead, the legislature would create separate elections and ethics panels, with each party picking an equal number of members. Republicans, who sought and approved the changes, have accused the GAB of failing to adequately check for ineligible voters and of encouraging investigations into conservative group activities.

Both items now head back to the Assembly, which passed slightly different versions of each.

Much earlier in the sessions, the Senate advanced legislation that would require felons caught in possession of a firearm to spend three years in prison. Republican Van Wanggaard voted in favor. He says the measure targets hardened criminals.

“These are murder, rape, etc. Battery depending upon the degree. Strangulation is a class H, false imprisonment a class H, stalking. Those are just a few to cover some of the extensions of the crimes. Now this individual has already been convicted and has probably a very lengthy record, is now out there with a handgun. In Milwaukee, crime is out of control with shootings and people carrying handguns that are not lawfully able to possess them,” Wanggaard says.

Both Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn have been calling upon lawmakers to pass minimum sentences for felons in possessions of firearms.

Milwaukee Democratic Senator Lena Taylor argues that mandatory minimums are not what the community needs to fight its spike in gun killings in 2015.

“If we want to do something, that changes violence, even the medical journals say the things that change violence are the services and putting people on different tracks. The law now says a person can get up to 10 years and a $25,000 fine. You don’t need another law,” Taylor says.

The legislation, which now heads to the Assembly, contains a sunset provision, so that state and local leaders can study the impact of the bill before deciding whether it should continue.

Senators on Friday also approved legislation that would ease some of the state’s requirements when it comes to testing for led paint and inspections.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.