Cross-posted on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Last week, the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill that would dramatically reduce voters’ ability to know which corporations, unions and wealthy individuals are funding state campaigns. The Senate is expected to vote on a companion bill (SB 292) shortly.
Supporters of the measure say these changes are required by recent court decisions. Don’t believe it. If passed, SB 292 would radically change the law, not comply with it. As we explained in a letter to legislators this week, the Senate should vote it down.
SB 292 breaks sharply from Wisconsin’s tradition of openness and transparency, allowing big donors to influence government without public scrutiny. Current law requires all outside groups (such as super PACs) that raise or spend over $300 for political purposes to register and report their spending. Under the proposed law, in most cases only groups whose “major purpose” is to produce ads that explicitly ask viewers to vote for or against a candidate would be required to register and report their spending.
And who gets to decide a group’s major purpose? Why, the group itself. According to SB 292, a group’s “major purpose” is determined by its own organizational documents or statements to the government. It will be child’s play for political operatives to get around these transparency protections.
Even if this were not the case, limiting disclosure to groups that run ads explicitly asking viewers to vote for or against a candidate means that the vast majority of super PAC and other outside spending will stay in the shadows. As any campaign veteran knows, two weeks before an election, there is no practical difference between an ad that says “defeat Jane Smith” and one that says “call Jane Smith and tell her to stop hurting Wisconsin workers.” In fact, the latter is probably a more effective message, which is why such “sham issue ads” are so common. Almost all such spending by outside groups will stay hidden under SB 292.
Given that Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly support transparency, why, you might ask, are legislative leaders pushing such a rollback? Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recently claimed that he and his colleagues essentially have no choice, and are just following court decisions that require the state to allow massive amounts of secret political spending. But that’s just not true.
In Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8–1 to uphold a law requiring super PACs and other groups to report spending and name their contributors when their ads mention a candidate within 60 days of an election. That requirement is much broader and more difficult to circumvent than the Wisconsin Senate measure.
It’s true that Citizens United did not specify just how far disclosure laws can go, and that a lower court decision last year held that Wisconsin must reduce the reporting burden for some issue advocacy groups. But that court did not (and could not) hold that disclosure laws must be weaker than those approved by the Supreme Court in Citizens United.
SB 292 is not required by any court decision, and, if passed, would renege on the state’s long-standing commitment to transparency and good government. As Wisconsin and the nation struggle with partisan rancor, distrust in government and resulting apathy, the answer is not more secrecy in politics. It’s more sunlight.