Mike McCabe

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

When I or any of my colleagues want to know who’s pumping money into political campaigns we tap into the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s campaign finance database, one of the best such resources in the nation. Over the past two years, the site has generated well over 30 million hits from citizens and journalists who want to find out whose money is influencing state politics.

But the future of that resource is in doubt because the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which provides more than half the funding for the Democracy Campaign, has ended its support.

“I think all of us doing this kind of work in this region are just surprised by the timing,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “Because with Citizens United and the rise of dark money and unlimited election spending, it seems like the capacity to follow the money is needed more today than it’s ever been needed. And it seems like it’s just such an odd time to move away from a commitment to money tracking.”

The Joyce Foundation provides millions each year to groups — many in Great Lakes states — that work on campaign finance reform, environmental concerns, gun control, education, employment and cultural programs. It started the Money and Politics Program 16 years ago, which allowed the WDC to create the state’s only searchable database of contributors to state campaigns. While the information exists on the state Government Accountability Board’s website, it’s virtually impossible to do a comprehensive search on specific contributors.

“The state’s data is really a haystack,” says McCabe. “But there’s no way to see the needles. You’ve got to sift through the haystack and find the needles. What we do really is get to the needles and put them in nice bundles. People can actually see the needles in the haystack. It’s an utterly unique service.”

The database currently has nearly a million records of campaign donations, with over 100,000 added last year, McCabe says.

Joyce Foundation funding amounted to $232,500 of WDC's $430,000 budget.

The foundation gave the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign $100,000 as a parting gift.

“That gives us a little time to look for a solution,” McCabe says. “But they made it clear that that was the final grant.”

McCabe says the foundation gave him no reason for the decision.

Joyce Foundation spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld says she can't comment on the reason for the funding cut.

"The deliberations and decisions by the Joyce Foundation’s board are private, and we cannot comment on them," she says in an email. "But we are proud of the work we are funding in Wisconsin on a series of issues, including working with our partners to build a stronger, healthier democracy in the state." 

McCabe says his group isn’t yet in dire straits.

“This is a major source of funding but it’s not our only source of funding,” he says. “We have some weeks or months to try to identify alternative funding sources and look to people to try to keep our money-tracking operation going.”

According to McCabe, last year the site provided journalists with material for more than 300 newspaper stories and 200 television and radio stories. The WDC also has forged partnerships with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism to develop the online tool MAPLight, which allows the public to see the impact of campaign money on policy decisions.

To keep WDC's database going, McCabe says, donors have to step up to the plate.

“You can’t find that anywhere else in Wisconsin,” he says. “So Wisconsin has got to decide whether that’s something it can do without or not. So we’re going to find out in the months to come whether this service is valued highly or not.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.