Keep the conversation going on campaign finance disclosure

Please note: This column is embargoed for publication on March 20, 2016.

By George Stanley
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

We’ve just completed Sunshine Week — an effort to recognize the fundamental importance of open government to democracy, spearheaded each year by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Last Sunday I wrote about the need to replace obsolete campaign finance limits with new laws revealing campaign donors at the state and federal level. Many of you wrote to ask how we might get that done. Please, let’s keep that conversation going.

The purpose of the new disclosure rules would be to let citizens know who is behind political advertising and their interests in the outcome of the race.

So if, for example, tribal casino operators flooded cash into commercials backing Democrats, voters could take into account upcoming gambling contract negotiations with the state. Or, if a multinational mining company flooded cash into commercials backing Republicans, voters could take into account its desire to dig a huge mine in northern Wisconsin.

Both of those things actually happened in Wisconsin and citizens were left in the dark. Within months of being elected with the help of last-minute tribal donations in 2002, Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, signed exclusive, permanent gambling compacts with the tribes that were so generous they were eventually ruled unconstitutional. A decade later, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders crafted new laws easing environmental regulations on mining operations within months of being reelected with the help of mining company donations. In each case, citizens only learned of the donations thanks to investigative reporting long after the elections.

Shouldn’t voters in a democratic republic have the right to know whether their elected representatives are working for them or for powerful special interests, who may even live in a distant state or foreign country?

Of course. But this donor information is becoming increasingly difficult to find at the same time that more money than ever is flowing into elections.

When the U.S. Supreme Court determined that buying political commercials was a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, it effectively rewrote a century of campaign finance laws. The problem, right now, is that the old restrictions on donor influence haven’t yet been replaced, at either the federal or state level, with new rules to limit or shed light on the power of the few to buy disproportionate influence over our elected officials.

After reviewing some of the best state disclosure laws out there, here is a simple starting point:

Let’s ask all candidates, their campaigns and the political parties to disclose the names, addresses and occupations of donors who contribute significant sums, presently $200 or more in Wisconsin. Electronic records of such donations should be publicly available and updated weekly or more frequently in the months before and immediately after an election.

In addition, any person, corporation or group would be considered a political participant if they produce or disseminate commercials that name or depict a candidate, or a ballot initiative, within 60 days of an election. Participants who coordinate directly with candidates or parties —now legal in Wisconsin — would be subject to the same disclosure rules as the candidates.

Political participants operating independently of the parties and candidates would need to disclose the names, addresses and occupations of financial supporters who invest amounts equal to or exceeding the maximum campaign contribution allowed – presently, $20,000 for statewide offices.

These new disclosure requirements would simplify campaign finance laws while also making them more effective. So long as citizens know who is participating in elections they can determine whether powerful interests are buying too much influence over government.

This is not a partisan issue. The same rules would apply for unions and George Soros, billionaire backer of Democrats, as for industries and Charles Koch, billionaire backer of Republicans. What’s more, the rules would apply in primary elections, revealing different backers within parties.

Why would any honest politician of either party oppose timely disclosure rules?

Some big donors won’t like it. They’ll claim fear of criticism might inhibit their willingness to advocate with dollars. But in reality they don’t want to lose power by negotiating in the light of day, where support for rewriting laws and taxpayer spending must be won through public forums and open bidding processes, as our nation’s founders intended.

The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who concurred in the “Citizens United” decision that made the old campaign finance laws obsolete, also championed public disclosure in politics.

“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,” Scalia wrote.

If you agree with the need to disclose who is financing our elections, please contact your state and federal representatives and let them know.

Thank you.

Posted in Toolkit