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Senate passes amended campaign finance bill at midnight, GAB bill at 2:30 a.m.

Written by LOPPW | 11/23/2015

Two bills altering Wisconsin’s political landscape passed the Republican-controlled state Senate in a late-night Friday into early-morning Saturday session all but assuring they will head to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk by the end of the month.

One bill returns the 8-year-old Government Accountability Board to separate bipartisan commissions to oversee ethics and elections. It passed on a partisan 18-14 vote at 2:30 a.m. Saturday after Senate Republicans agreed in closed caucus earlier Friday to include retired judges on the ethics panel.

The other bill rewrites the state’s decades-old campaign finance laws, which supporters note have been hobbled by a series of court decisions that struck down contribution limits as a violation of free speech. Critics say the bill will allow candidates to coordinate with anonymous donors to fund thinly veiled campaign ads, rendering campaign finance regulations meaningless.

It passed 17-15 at midnight Friday with one Republican, Sen. Rob Cowles of Green Bay, voting against it. Cowles said he has always opposed more money in politics and that “the garbage of politics … is propelled by this bill.”

The Assembly passed both bills Oct. 21, less than two weeks after they were introduced, but it must vote on them again because of changes made by the Senate. The state Assembly has scheduled its own extraordinary session for Nov. 16, at which point it likely will take up the amended bills.

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said “the changes seem reasonable to the Speaker but he will discuss them with the caucus over the next week.”

Both bills drew at times sharp exchanges over more than seven hours of debate late Friday and early Saturday morning.

Democrats chastised Republicans for scheduling an extraordinary session outside the normal floor period to allow a flood of more money into politics, rather than help families affected by a series of recent layoff announcements, including the pending closure of Madison’s Oscar Mayer headquarters.

Republicans dressed down the GAB, the state’s nonpartisan elections and ethics agency, highlighting recent Legislative audits that found the agency failed to comply with state law in a timely manner.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, Fitzgerald also chastised the GAB for its involvement in two John Doe investigations into Gov. Scott Walker’s Milwaukee County office and recall campaign.

The first yielded six convictions of Walker aides and associates on charges including embezzlement from a veterans fund and public employees campaigning during work hours. The state Supreme Court halted the second saying it had no basis in law, a ruling the lead prosecutor has asked be reconsidered.

Fitzgerald held up a stack of emails that showed GAB staff pushing the lead prosecutor to pursue the case amid doubts about his legal theory, which he said illustrated partisanship at the agency. The prosecutor, a former Republican who voted for Walker in the recall election, said recently he no longer has those doubts.

“The model is broken,” Fitzgerald said. “You have judges up here that don’t know what’s going on. You have a director that may or may not, and staff that’s running the show. … If you look at what happened with John Doe I and John Doe II and everything that happened during the recall elections, everyone in this room should be scared to death.”

Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, said the GAB, which was created by both parties in 2007 in response to the ineffectiveness of the previous bipartisan ethics commission, “should be celebrated for upholding the clean campaign finance laws of this state, not dismantled.”

The new commissions would start on June 30, which Democrats said isn’t enough transition time before the high turnout 2016 presidential election. But Fitzgerald said the elections would continue to be handled primarily by local municipal clerks.

“The clerks will do a fine job with the elections, they always do,” he said.

Under a Senate GOP amendment to the GAB bill, the governor would appoint the ex-judges to the ethics commission from a pool of nominees selected by legislative leaders from both parties, with the Senate voting to confirm the appointees.

The other bill gives the biggest makeover in decades to state campaign finance law. It doubles campaign contribution limits, increasing the amount a candidate for governor could receive from a donor to $20,000. It also defines express advocacy, though more rigidly than the Assembly version of the bill, which critics said could create a loophole for candidates to coordinate loosely with groups that advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate.

Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the change was made because the language in the Assembly bill left room for interpretation and the goal was to define coordination as clearly as possible.

Democrats offered 13 amendments seeking to create reporting requirements for groups that spend money on so-called issue ads, delay implementation of the bill until after the 2018 election and restore employer disclosure requirement for contributors who give more than $200. They all failed on partisan votes.

Sen. Janet Bewley, R-Ashland, lamented that the bill would further focus the campaign process on money, rather than informing the electorate about candidates.

“What we’re doing is marching in lock step of money and money and more money,” Bewley said. “Instead of an informed decision, voters are going to be buffeted by a fire hose of information that will eventually limit their ability to cast a reasonable vote. Too much information IS a bad thing, particularly if you don’t know who’s doing the talking.”

LeMahieu pushed back against criticism that the bill would allow more money to flow into elections through so-called issue advocacy groups, which can already raise unlimited funds from undisclosed donors.

“This bill is silent on issue advocacy,” LeMahieu said.

That’s the problem, Democrats said, as the bill gives leeway for candidates to coordinate with groups that run thinly veiled campaign ads, a practice that was prohibited until the Supreme Court John Doe decision in July.

The Senate version would reduce the required frequency for campaign finance reporting by candidates and other political committees from a quarterly basis, as outlined in the Assembly bill, to a biannual basis, as is currently required.