GOP state senators reversed course early Saturday and voted to let people make political donations without disclosing their employers as part of a broad overhaul of campaign finance laws. The bill passed just after midnight 17-15, with all Democrats and Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) opposing the measure and all other GOP senators supporting it. The measure now returns to the state Assembly, which will have to agree to the changes made by the Senate. GOP senators also approved a bill to eliminate the state Government Accountability Board, which runs elections and oversees ethics laws, and to give those duties to two new commissions. The proposal, which passed on a strictly party-line vote of 18-14, goes to the Assembly as well. Together the proposals would represent a significant shift in how elections are run and how money flows in the world of Wisconsin politics.
Cowles said he voted against the campaign finance bill because it doubled maximum limits on donations and did away with the employer disclosure, which can highlight when businesses, unions and industries are trying to influence office holders. “I’ve always believed strongly in transparency,” said Cowles, who this summer also opposed an attempt to limit the state’s open records law. “People deserve that…The citizens need information.”
But other Republicans said the legislation embraced free speech and individual rights. “This bill makes certain, first and foremost, that speech is protected,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said.
Democrats blasted the measure, saying it opened the door to special interests and potentially corruption. “What the leader talks about isn’t freedom of speech. It’s freedom of cash,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) said.