The Wisconsin Assembly is set to pass a pair of bills that would reshape the state's election oversight and campaign finance rules Wednesday, though their future in the Senate is unclear.
Legislators agreed to debate the proposals for 10 hours in a floor session scheduled to go late into the evening.
Overhauling the Government Accountability Board
The first of two proposals would split the state's elections agency into two agencies, both run by a bipartisan panel of appointees rather than the retired judges who currently oversee elections and ethics issues. It was approved Wednesday afternoon on a 58-39 vote, with two Republicans joining Democrats in voting against it.
Bill author Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have said repeatedly the current model was founded with good intentions but has been a "failed experiment."
Citing findings from several audits, Knudson has said the agency has failed to follow state law, failed to develop written policies and failed to follow some of its own policies.
Democrats took issue with a provision in the bill that would require the new agencies to seek approval from the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee for any investigations of ethics or election law violations costing more than $25,000. Republicans say the provision eliminates the possibility of writing a "blank check" for investigations.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the requirement would amount to requiring investigators to say, "We believe there could be corruption. Do you mind if we investigate you?"
"Do we live in la-la-land? Under what circumstances do you have to go to people potentially being investigated to ask permission for the funds to investigate them?" Barca asked.
Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, said the new commissions would become "toothless lapdogs."
Knudson said identifying information would be stripped from any such funding requests made to the Joint Finance Committee.
The bill is set to take effect June 30. The upcoming spring election would be handled under the existing structure, as would any campaign filings with a June 1 deadline. Employees not considered part of the "top leadership" would be transferred to the two newly created commissions.
"There’s no reason to anticipate problems," Knudson told reporters Wednesday when asked about the plan's implementation. "We’ve got a great transition plan."
The current agency was formed in 2008, after an overwhelming bipartisan vote in 2007 to abolish the existing state ethics and elections boards and create the GAB.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker said he supports overall reform of the GAB, and he "looks forward to working with lawmakers on a replacement for the GAB that is fair, transparent, and accountable to Wisconsinites."
Some Republican senators have been hesitant to lend their support to the GAB bill in its current form. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said senators will continue to discuss the legislation.
Reshaping campaign finance law
Republicans backing a proposal to overhaul the state's campaign finance rules say the legislation is necessary to bring the state's statutes up to speed with several court rulings governing campaign finance. But Democrats say the changes would open the door for corruption and expand the influence of money in politics.
"We’re following the lead of the courts and we are respecting the First Amendment," Vos told reporters, adding that many members of the Republican caucus disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage. He said Democrats needed to accept rulings like Citizens United as the law of the land, just as Republicans have with gay marriage.
The legislation would double the amount of contributions that state and local candidates could receive from individuals, and would adjust that limit for inflation every five years.
Under the bill, political parties and legislative campaign committees could make unlimited donations to a candidate committee.
The bill would allow legislative campaign committees and political parties to receive unlimited contributions, with the exception of a $12,000 per year limit on PAC contributions to those committees and parties.
The legislation would also allow unlimited contributions to be made to and transferred between political action committees.
"I shudder to think about the storm that is coming in our great state," Zamarripa said of the two bills being considered Wednesday.
The proposal would ban candidates from coordinating with outside groups on express advocacy — calls to vote "for or against" a candidate — but would place no restrictions on coordination on issue advocacy. Issue advocacy avoids telling voters to elect or defeat a candidate and instead focuses on a candidate's policies. The state Supreme Court ruled in July that kind of coordination is legal, as a matter of free speech.
"I think one of the things we need in society is more discussion of issues and less discussion of elections," Vos told reporters. "This is exactly what it’s about."
Campaign donors would no longer be required to disclose their employer under the bill. Instead, they would be required to list their occupation. Currently, donors who give more than $200 are required to list both pieces of information.
A spokeswoman for the governor's office said the office will review the proposal, but did not indicate whether Walker supports it as-is. A spokeswoman for Fitzgerald said the senator expects changes may be required for the bill to gain traction in the Senate, depending on how the bill looks after Assembly approval.