Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws were overdue for change after a series of court decisions over the past year. In recent months, the courts have allowed coordination between campaigns and issue groups and allowed individuals to give unlimited amounts of money to political parties. We still question whether those decisions are in the best interest of the public. But state and federal judges have, effectively, rewritten Wisconsin law, and so the law itself should be brought up to date. But legislators and citizens who hold them accountable should take a close look at what Assembly Bill 387 would do. The tinkering will mean even more money in state politics, and the vast majority of it will be given in secret with no public disclosure. In the long run, that erodes trust in government. The campaign finance bill would double the amount that donors can give to candidates. For statewide office, contributors now would be able to give $20,000, and that amount would be adjusted for inflation every five years.
In deference to a decision by federal Judge Rudolph Randa last year, the bill also would let donors elude existing limits by allowing them to give as much as they want to political parties and campaign committees controlled by legislative leaders. The parties could then, in turn, make unlimited contributions to candidates.
The bill revamps state law in other ways to conform with court decisions. The state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year, for example, that issue groups and candidates can work together as long as those groups don’t tell citizens explicitly how to vote. The legislation allows such coordination. To most of us, those advertisements look a lot like campaign ads but no disclosure is required if the ads don’t use phrases such as “vote for” or “vote against.”