After a debate that stretched from Friday afternoon into Saturday morning, the Wisconsin Senate approved, with changes, a pair of bills altering the state's campaign finance and election oversight rules.
The bills will now return to the Assembly, which must approve the changes before sending the bills to Gov. Scott Walker. The legislation remains largely unchanged from the versions passed by the Assembly late last month, with a few key differences.
Republicans backing the proposals say the bills are necessary to bring the state's statutes in line with court rulings and to protect First Amendment rights to free speech. Democrats argue the bills, along with one limiting the scope of crimes that can be investigated in John Doe probes, would open the door for corruption and expand the influence of money in politics.
Lawmakers met in a rare Friday extraordinary session, taking up nearly three dozen other pieces of legislation before breaking for several hours and returning around 7:15 p.m.
The first of two proposals rewrites the state's campaign finance rules. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, argued the changes are long overdue. He acknowledged the legislation is "not perfect," but said it makes sure, "first and foremost, speech is protected."
Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, joined Democrats in voting against the bill, which passed at midnight on a 17-15 vote.
Fitzgerald said the bill creates a "system where all money can be accounted for in a legal, regulated and transparent manner that meets current judicial standards."
But Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said it "closes the door, turns off the light and pulls the shades."
He rejected Republicans' framing of the legislation as a protection of free speech, arguing instead that it is about "freedom of cash."
"If you think you’re doing something good here today, you're not," Erpenbach said, addressing his Republican colleagues. "You are minimizing your role as a candidate. You are taking yourself out of the game, because the big-money power brokers are going to have all the say in this state."
Senate Republicans had previously indicated they would do away with a provision of the bill eliminating the requirement for campaign donors to disclose their employers, but unexpectedly left the plan untouched.
Supporters of that provision say it will protect businesses from unnecessary boycotts, but opponents argue it's important to know which industries are trying to influence politicians and policy.
Fitzgerald said his caucus had a serious debate over that provision, but said the majority of Republican senators were concerned that listing employers' information could have a chilling effect on political participation. Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, was one of those senators, arguing that listing an employer's name could put a target on the backs of both the employer and the employee.
Erpenbach and Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, countered that disclosing that information has uncovered scandals and illegal activity in the past.
"If you’re going to be prostituted, in this body, I want to know where the money’s coming from," said Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee.
The bill, as approved by the Assembly, would double contribution limits for state and local candidates and adjust the limit for inflation every five years. The Senate approved doubling the limits, but axed the provision allowing for inflation adjustments.
"Wisconsin's campaign finance laws are grossly out of date," Fitzgerald said. "Since the last rewrite of our campaign finance laws in the 1970s, multiple court cases have ruled various sections of our laws unenforceable, leaving a treacherous and confusing set of partially legal statutes to navigate."
The Assembly version of the bill would allow corporations, unions and Indian tribes to give unlimited contributions to political parties and campaign committees. The Senate version caps those contributions at $12,000 per year.
The proposal bans candidates from coordinating with outside groups on express advocacy — calls to vote "for or against" a candidate — but places 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.
The Senate version of the bill more narrowly defines what kind of interactions are prohibited between candidates and express advocacy groups.
Senators also did away with an Assembly plan to require more frequent reporting of contributions, keeping those requirements mostly as they are under current law.
The second proposal splits the state Government Accountability Board into two agencies, both run by a bipartisan panel of appointees rather than the retired judges who currently oversee elections and ethics issues. A Republican amendment approved Friday adds two former judges to the new ethics board.
Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, said the GAB bill addresses serious structural flaws with the current law. Fitzgerald presented the GAB as a rogue agency that fought the decisions of the Legislature by assisting with John Doe investigations into Walker's Milwaukee county executive office, his campaign and his allies.
But Lassa argued if the Senate wanted to discuss a failed agency, it should address the troubled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, not the GAB.
"We went to great lengths to make sure it was fair, equal, balanced and objective," Vukmir said of the new system.
Erpenbach predicted the new model would "fail miserably."
While Democrats argued the new format is engineered to give Republicans an advantage, Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said it's in the interests of all lawmakers to make sure the new system is successful.
The GAB overhaul bill cleared the Senate on an 18-14 party-line vote.
The Assembly is expected to meet on Nov. 16 to take up the Senate's changes.