The state Senate voted early Saturday morning to approve sweeping changes to the state’s election and campaign finance systems, ending weeks of uncertainty surrounding the bills’ fates.
One bill would alter state campaign finance law by increasing contribution limits for campaign donations and loosening restrictions on political action committee giving. That measure passed 17-15 with state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, voting with the Democratic minority to oppose the measures.
The second bill, designed to split the state’s nonpartisan election board into two entities comprised equally of Republicans and Democrats, passed on a party-line vote.
The Senate voted to approve several key amendments to the bills, both of which passed the state Assembly last month. Under the Senate version, two former judges would be added to the next election board, a compromise among Republicans.
In addition, the body altered the campaign finance bill to limit political action committees from coordinating with candidates on issues.
Proponents of the measures argue they increase free speech and are sufficient enough to do away with the Government Accountability Board, the agency that oversees elections in Wisconsin and which Republicans argue is non-partisan in name only.
“I believe the people of Wisconsin deserve an effective agency overseeing one of the most important of their constitutional rights,” said Assistant Majority Leader Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa. “The problems plaguing the GAB need to be addressed ... We are correcting the problems.”
The GAB, created in 2007 with bipartisan support, has come under increased scrutiny for its part in a 2012 John Doe investigation into alleged violations during Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign.
But critics of the bills maintain they would destroy an agency that has been called a model for the nation and open the floodgates for outside money in state elections.
“Look at what you’re doing today,“ said state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. “We’re going backwards and our democracy is at risk.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has struggled to get enough of his members behind the bills to move them forward. A breakthrough appeared to come Tuesday, as Fitzgerald announced that a compromise had been reached to move the amended versions forward.
But as the afternoon waned Friday, there was no official word from Republican leadership as to what those amendments entailed. The body met until 2:30 p.m. to pass a slate of smaller bills before breaking for partisan caucus.
Two hours later, the first of the proposed changes to the GAB bill were made public, including requiring two former judges be appointed to the commission and changing how the chair is selected.
Changes to the campaign finance bill were announced shortly thereafter, without expected changes to reinstate language that compels donors to disclose their employer if they give over $200. Fitzgerald said a “vast majority” of his caucus opposed the changes because it could “have a chilling effect” on campaign donations.
Because of the changes made by the Senate, the Assembly will have to re-approve the bills before they can advance to the governor’s desk. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has indicated that he would call his body into extraordinary session Nov. 16 to pass the amended versions of both bills.