Senate: Fitzgerald and Grothman

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, left, with Sen. Glenn Grothman.

Once again the Wisconsin state Senate is putting a check on the bold designs of the state Assembly.

A campaign finance bill that passed the Assembly in June on a voice vote — only a few Democrats registered their opposition — appears to be stalled in the upper chamber where Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said that the legislation needs "major changes" before he can support it.

The bill picked up Democratic support in the Assembly after Republicans agreed to remove a number of provisions, including language that would have required voters to present identification at the polls unless they signed an affidavit swearing they were indigent. The resulting legislation would double the amount an individual or political action committee could contribute to candidates for state offices.

The individual contribution limit for Assembly candidates would rise from $500 to $1,000; the limit for Senate candidates would rise from $1,000 to $2,000; and the limit for gubernatorial candidates, as well as the aggregate amount one could give to all state candidates, would rise from $10,000 to $20,000.

Although few legislators in either party seemed to express particular joy in raising the amount of money the wealthy could give to politicians, some argued that bigger contributions to candidates would mean less money going to dark money independent groups that do not have to disclose their donors.

"If we have artificially low limits, money is going to flow into the independent expenditures, which is not good for anybody," said state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, who supports the legislation.

A number of Democrats expressed that same reasoning in supporting the bill.

Grothman said he doesn't know who or what is stopping the bill in the Senate, but he ventured a guess.

"I assume politically there is fear that if we increase the amount you can give to candidates, you are increasing the influence of the rich," he said. "Republicans are very afraid of being perceived as for the rich."

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, a campaign finance reform advocacy group, said he believes that a number of Republican senators oppose the bill because it would increase the amount of money that legislative campaign committees, such as the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate and the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, could raise from political action committees, from $150,000 to $300,000. The more money those groups could raise, the more power would shift to party leaders who control the Assembly and Senate.

"What killed it was more concern about concentrating even more political power in the hands of the leadership," he said.

Heck, who vehemently opposes the legislation, also shot down Grothman's claim that increasing campaign contribution limits would decrease the movement of money into independent groups.

"Outside groups don't necessarily collect money from the same donors," he said.

Indeed, big-spending independent groups at the national and state levels are often fueled by large contributions from corporations, unions or very wealthy individuals who give hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars at a time.

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