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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Issue of the Week: When Money Talks

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The national media got part of the story right. Last week's recall election was highly influenced by the $80 million spent on campaign ads, mailers, robocalls and ongoing fundraising efforts.

But while national reporters pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United for the historic influx of cash, Wisconsin's campaign finance and recall statutes are the root of the problem.

Wisconsin's recall provision in the state constitution allows the targeted official to raise unlimited sums of money to mount a defense of that recall until the election is certified. That enabled Gov. Scott Walker to raise $30 million from around the country, far more than he or any other candidate could raise under regular campaign finance laws.

Walker exploited the laws to create a big advantage. One of his supporters filed recall papers early, so that Walker could start collecting contributions before the organized, official recall committee could launch its signature-collection efforts. Walker continued raising funds from out of state and blanketed the airwaves with ads long before the almost 1 million signatures were turned in to the Government Accountability Board (GAB) and his opponents could begin their campaigns.

Technically, Walker's unlimited donations were supposed to be used for the defense of the recall, and could only be collected until the GAB certified the recall election. But, again, Walker was able to exploit loopholes in the law. According to One Wisconsin Now, he collected the “unlimited” sums even after the GAB called the election because he allegedly incurred so many expenses related to the recall.

At the same time, Walker transferred more than $160,000 from his campaign account to his criminal defense fund for legal expenses resulting from the ongoing John Doe investigation. Here, too, Walker exploited some loopholes. While state law requires him to get the permission of his donors to transfer campaign contributions to his defense fund, he didn't need to get that permission in writing or itemize those transfers on his campaign finance statement. As a result, Wisconsin voters may never know who is paying for his criminal defense attorneys.

So while Citizens United may be an issue when it comes to the influence of money in campaigns, another big problem is much closer to home. While we don't anticipate that legislators are going to trip over themselves to fix a campaign finance system that ultimately benefits them, it would be the right thing to do. Wisconsin voters deserve more transparency and accountability from our elected officials. We need to know who is paying for campaign expenses and underwriting criminal defense attorneys so that we know who our elected officials are beholden to. A clean, fair campaign finance system will ultimately lead to a cleaner, fairer government.

Heroes of the Week
: Good Neighbor Project Volunteers

One of several efforts organized by Interfaith Older Adult Programs (600 W. Virginia St.), the Good Neighbor Project matches volunteers with nearby older adults who need assistance with maintaining their properties. Volunteers help with shoveling snow in winter and cutting grass and doing general yard chores in the spring, summer and fall.

The Good Neighbor Project welcomes long- and short-term commitments from both individuals and groups. There is a waiting list of seniors requesting assistance. Readers interested in helping older adults in their area are encouraged to call 414-220-8648 or visit www.interfaithmilw.org for more information.
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