My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
In the wee hours of Saturday, the Wisconsin Senate passed a pair of bills reforming the state’s political campaigns and the oversight of them. Both sets of reforms, born out of necessity, will be in place for the presidential election next year.
The first bill reforms Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws. A series of federal and state court rulings over the past few years have invalidated various portions of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws as unconstitutional. The result has been the state’s campaign finance laws rendered largely unenforceable, leaving people in legal limbo.
The campaign finance reform bill makes several changes to bring Wisconsin’s laws into compliance with the recent court rulings, changes campaign contribution limits and defines express advocacy. Perhaps the most controversial portion of the bill is to remove the requirement for political donors to disclose their employer.
Under current law, people who donate $100 or more to a campaign must disclose their employer. The problem is two-fold. First, the provision is largely unenforceable because campaign treasurers, who are obligated to provide the information, do not have any legal authority to compel donors to provide the information. If a donor refuses, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Second, the disclosure of employers has been used by activists to target businesses for retribution, even though the employer does not have a right to tell an employee which candidates to support. Under the bill passed by the Senate, donors will still have to disclose their occupation, but not their specific employer.
The second bill passed by the Senate on Saturday morning will replace the rogue Government Accountability Board with two bipartisan commissions. The GAB, born out of the caucus scandals of the last decade, is a failed experiment. The intention of the GAB was to create a nonpartisan board with vast power and independence to oversee both ethics and elections. The GAB was to be run by austere retired judges, who had been ground to wisdom with the millstone of time.
The GAB’s creation was widely supported by liberals and conservatives, including me. We were all wrong. We all failed to heed the lessons taught to us by our nation’s founders, who knew that all people are corruptible. The best defense against the ravages of tyranny is to accept the fallibility of mankind and build government structures on the foundation of competing interests. The GAB’s despotic attacks on the First Amendment rights of the people it was supposed to serve were the result of bad people wielding too much power in too much secrecy.
The Senate bill decentralizes the power of the GAB over ethics and elections into two commissions. Each of the commissions will be staffed by an equal number of partisans from each major party. Both commissions will also be more accountable to oversight by the legislature. The Legislature has also committed to continuing to clarify and reform Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws, as they have already done, in order to ensure that it will leave less gray area for dispute over the enforcement of those laws.
Unfortunately, the Senate, unlike the Assembly, included a provision to include a couple of retired judges, a la the GAB, on the Ethics Commission. This was a compromise included in the bill to placate a handful of squishy Republicans. I do not know why these Republicans have such a mystical faith in the druidical robes of retired judges, but they were not going to support reforming the GAB without them. More than likely, the inclusion of the retired judges was more for the purpose demonstrating the power of a frustrated wing of the Republican Senate caucus than any actual attempt at making the bill better for Wisconsinites.
Both Senate bills were slightly different than the versions passed last month by the Assembly, so the Assembly will reconvene next week to vote on the Senate version of the bills. Assuming that the Assembly passes the identical version, which it is widely expected to do, the bills are headed to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk, where the governor will hopefully use his veto pen to correct some of the illconceived concessions that found their way into the bill. In any case, Wisconsin is well on its way to a better political process.