Our Views: Wisconsin should keep modest disclosure of campaign donors

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Friday, November 1, 2013

“The Legislature finds and declares that our democratic system of government can be maintained only if the electorate is informed. It further finds that excessive spending on campaigns for public office jeopardizes the integrity of elections. …”

—Declaration of policy, Chapter 11 of Wisconsin's state laws

When a candidate's supporters aren't fully disclosed, or when a candidate depends too much on large donors, corruption can influence the democratic process.

That is another part of the policy declaration in state law Chapter 11. It's also why lawmakers should reject Assembly Bill 378.

Current state law requires donors giving more than $100 per year to disclose their occupations and employers. This bill would require disclosure only of the occupation of donors giving more than $500.

Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, author of Senate companion SB 282, argues that a 2011 union-organized boycott hurt a Wisconsin bank whose leaders padded Gov. Scott Walker's campaign. He likens such tactics to terrorism.

Yet as the Wisconsin State Journal reported, Grothman's evidence of harm is sketchy. Besides, the disclosure law cuts both ways, also applying to union leaders and public employees who dump cash on Walker's opponents. The more information voters have about all donors, the better they can assess influence.

During an Assembly committee hearing Tuesday, Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said AB 378 would radically limit transparency.

“It attacks one of the freedoms most fundamental to any functioning republic—freedom of information,” McCabe testified. “It attacks the public's right to know.”

McCabe should know. Since 1996, his organization has tracked donors in a database. Of the more than 862,000 donations, some 825,000 were for $500 or less. That means that, if AB 378 were in effect, the database would be 96 percent smaller and show only the occupations but not the employers of some 36,000 contributors.

We're talking state and local elections. Imagine the favor a developer's donation of $495 to some city council candidate might curry.

Also, as McCabe pointed out, because the donation limit for Assembly candidates is just $500, if the bill passed, neither the occupations nor employers of donors would be disclosed.

McCabe also testified that the bill would hinder law enforcement and ease criminal activity. Investigators used his group's database to help convict two wealthy donors of laundering money—cash that went to Republicans and Democrats. The legislation, McCabe argued, would make such investigations almost impossible.

Likewise, Kevin Kennedy, director of the state Government Accountability Board, stated in an earlier Senate hearing that employer information required of large donors is critical to law enforcement. He called the legislation “fundamentally flawed.”

Spending on elections has gone wild since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Citizens United, that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates. That doesn't mean, however, that Wisconsin should loosen its law that requires reasonable disclosure of individual donors.

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