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Jun 1 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Wisconsin Buried by an Avalanche of Spending

“We might have had a short winter in Wisconsin this year, but campaign fundraising and spending has been like an avalanche for the past ten months,” says Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Director. “The people of Wisconsin have been buried in campaign ads and literature from unknown sources that exploit loopholes to funnel unlimited campaign dollars into our democracy.”

In the 2012 recalls, gubernatorial candidates have spent more than $30 million, while interest groups sponsoring independent expenditures and issue ads have spent at least another $30 million.

Total spending in the Wisconsin recall elections of 2011 and 2012 combined tops $100 million dollars, says Mike McCabe, executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

$100 million dollars is a lot of money for a state like Wisconsin. And so much of the cash comes from people out of state, people who cannot even vote.

At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to trace the source of these campaign dollars.

Groups such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP) are spending a lot of money in the recalls but due to its 501(c)(4) tax status, it does not have to disclose its donors.

David Koch, of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, founded AFP and chairs its foundation. But you won’t see his name on the AFP bus traveling around Wisconsin these days.

“When our elections are turned into auctions, someone has to stand up to this nonsense,” says McCabe.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, WISPIRG, the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Midwest Environmental Advocates, United Council of UW Students, and a host of public interest advocates are doing just that. They are calling on Tom Barrett and Scott Walker to pledge that they will call a special session of the legislature this summer, if elected, to advance transparency and accountability in elections.

This coalition is calling for four specific policy recommendations:

1. Adopt new disclosure laws to ensure that the public can see where every single penny spent on state elections comes from.

2. Close the loophole in Wisconsin law allowing public officials targeted for recall to engage in unlimited campaign fundraising.

3. Require corporations to notify and get permission from shareholders in order to use their money for election spending.

4. Require that television, radio, and newspaper outlets keep an online public record of advertising purchased for electioneering purposes.

Could campaign finance reform be an issue most Wisconsinites can agree on after these contentious recalls?

Kim Wright of Midwest Environmental Advocates says when people’s wells are contaminated, it doesn’t matter if they are Democrat or Republican. “Money in politics is a barrier to health and safety,” she says.

Matt Guidry of the United Council of UW Students says these policy changes are sorely needed. “Students are seeing the money and the negative campaigning,” he says. “They get cynical and jaded.” These reforms would motivate students to vote, he says.

Kara Slaughter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union also thinks these changes are needed to get young people involved in political life. These reforms would be “a pledge to our young people that they can heed a call to civic duty.”

Noting the average age of a farmer and the average age of a politician are both 58, Slaughter asked how could we ask young people to run for office if they have to “mount a million-dollar campaign?”

It seems unlikely that Barrett or Walker would commit to a special legislative session to enact critical election reforms this summer, though the fact that it was mentioned in the May 31 gubernatorial debate is promising.

If campaign finance does happen, it will be due to citizen pressure. “Politicians don’t want to talk about this,” says McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “Real change comes from citizens first.”

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