Fast-tracked election bill would dramatically alter campaign spending

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, co-authored a proposal to increase campaign donation limits. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, co-authored a proposal to increase campaign donation limits. 

Image By: Emily Buck

A proposal that would dramatically alter the state’s campaign finance laws is being fast-tracked through the state Legislature, despite being termed by critics as a “deregulation” of the current system.

The changes come as part of a larger package of three bills to reform the state’s election system. Two of the more contentious proposals would split the state’s election board into two partisan agencies, generating disagreement among legislators.

But a third measure, authored by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, would significantly rewrite the state’s campaign finance system.

The bill would double limits on individual donations, which are currently $30,000 for gubernatorial candidates, and $3,000 and $1,500 to Senate and Assembly candidates, respectively. These current figures are more than the national average, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The measure would also allow for unlimited spending from political action committees to campaigns and allow donors to give unlimited amounts of money to campaign committees, which can be passed along to candidates, reflecting a state Supreme Court decision last year.

Proponents of the measure say it would modernize the state’s campaign finance regulations.

"We need to have more advocacy, more issues, more discussion,” Vos said at a public hearing Tuesday. “And sometimes that takes money to do it.”

But Mike McCabe, founder of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog organization which observes campaign donations in the state, said it would weaken the laws to the point of being ineffective.

“What we’ll end up having are campaign finance laws in name only,” McCabe said. “This is a complete deregulation of the system. As much money as groups want to pour in, they can.”

McCabe specifically criticized a provision that would allow candidates to coordinate with interest groups to keep donors a secret as long as the group focuses on issues and doesn’t use words such as “vote for” or “elect.”

“This is a loophole big enough to drive a Mack Truck through,” McCabe said. “This legislation cements it in place. Lawmakers don’t have to leave that loophole open so anonymous money from billionaires and corporations can flow in without detection.”

Republican leaders have indicated the bill is being fast-tracked with the rest of the Government Accountability Board reforms and could be voted on as early as next week.

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