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Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

So What Are They Hiding?

Republicans pushing legislation to conceal corporate money

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The state Legislature is planning to meet only one day this month.

But on that one day—Tuesday, Sept. 13—they attempted to block campaign finance disclosure rules that would shed light on who, exactly, is donating to shadowy, anonymous special interest groups that flood the airwaves with campaign ads.

The bill would prohibit the state Government Accountability Board (GAB) from developing any rule that would require a corporation to register with the board, report the source of its funds or expenditures or identify itself on its campaign communications.

Gone would be rules developed by the nonpartisan GAB in the wake of Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to get involved in campaigns but still permits states to implement campaign finance disclosure rules for them.

Meaning, Wisconsin Republicans are even more opposed to campaign disclosure rules than the John Roberts-led conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

No Author, No Public Hearing

The GAB-thwarting campaign finance disclosure bill was not introduced by any specific legislator, although Mequon Republican Rep. Jim Ott initiated the bill's drafting, according to documents from the Legislative Reference Bureau.

The bill was approved on a party-line vote in the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) and sent to the campaign-related committees in both houses of the state Legislature. It was moved out of those committees—without a public hearing—and sent to the floor of the state Assembly last week.

On Sept. 13, Assembly Republicans voted to send it back to committee, leaving legislators scratching their heads about what, exactly, transpired. It was placed on the Senate calendar last week.

The only special interest group that registered in support of it is the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which has been a strong supporter of Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans.

Neither Ott nor state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), the JCRAR co-chairs, responded to the Shepherd's request to comment on the bill.

But state Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), a member of the JCRAR, told the Shepherd that the Republicans' tactics and goal were clear.

“The Republicans want to gut the GAB,” Kessler said. “They know they would be vilified in a public hearing. Transparency is not what they want.”

Two-Fold Attack on Campaign Finance Disclosure

Last week's legislative shuffle is one part of a two-fold attack on campaign finance disclosure rules that the nonpartisan GAB developed after the Citizens United decision, which allowed corporate election spending in Wisconsin for the first time since 1906.

“We had a problem in Wisconsin because for 100 years there could be no corporate election spending,” said Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Mike McCabe. “It was illegal. So of course there was no disclosure provision for corporate election spending. There needed to be rule making once the Citizens United decision came down.”

The GAB had written one rule that would expand the definition of what campaigning means for independent groups. For example, groups that avoid using the magic words such as “vote for” or “support” could skirt campaign finance laws because they could claim that their ads and communications were merely “issue ads.”

These so-called issue ad groups can run ads and influence public opinion, but they don't have to disclose any financial information to the public if they don't specifically support or oppose a candidate.

The GAB attempted to close that loophole in 2010. But that rule is facing a legal challenge brought by Koch-brothers-funded tea party groups including the Wisconsin Prosperity Network, Americans for Prosperity, and even Kim Simac, a tea party darling who attempted to unseat Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin in this summer's recall elections.

Both Ott and Vukmir have appeared at tea party rallies and are closely aligned with the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity.

The state Supreme Court is currently hearing the case and the disputed rule is not in effect.

Old Disclosure Rule Now Expired

Now, in addition to the legal assault on campaign finance disclosure, the Republican-led Legislature is attempting to prevent the GAB from implementing any rule on corporate contributions.

Last year, the GAB had written a rule to clarify how corporations could report their campaign-related activities.

Reid Magney, spokesman for the GAB, said that corporations were looking for guidance on how to handle their political operations.

“Most of the key players in the corporations that do these sorts of things wanted these rules, so they knew what they were,” Magney said. “There's only a small number of them that objected to this rule.”

The rule had a public hearing and went into effect on an emergency basis in 2010, when Democrats controlled the state Legislature; the rule has since expired. The GAB was attempting to make that rule permanent when the Ott-drafted bill was introduced in the Legislature.

Magney said that the law on campaign finance disclosure is “in flux” but that the GAB is not planning to draft any new campaign finance rules on independent expenditures.

If it did, the agency would have to send the proposed rules to Gov. Scott Walker, who now has the power to approve or veto any administrative rule before it is sent to the state Legislature for review.

But if Ott's bill is eventually passed by the Legislature, then the GAB wouldn't be able to draft rules to require politically active corporations to make any public disclosure of their funds.