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GAB encouraging GOP to rewrite state's campaign finance laws

Wisconsin Government Accountability Board members Judge Thomas Barland and Judge Elsa Lamelas said at a recent meeting that the Legislature should rewrite the state's campaign finance laws.

Republicans, in firm control of state government when they take office Monday, are poised to make the most sweeping revisions to state campaign finance law in decades.

Many of those changes are already in effect after a series of federal court decisions made many current laws unenforceable. But a more comprehensive rewrite is in the works, and the overhaul is getting a thumbs up from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board — a frequent target of GOP ire that is itself in line for a possible makeover.

Among other things, lawmakers are considering increasing campaign contribution limits and clarifying the coordination restrictions at the heart of a recent John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign.

Also on tap: changes to election procedures, including banning all cameras from polling places and testing poll workers on their knowledge of election law. Those changes would come on the heels of a slew of changes adopted last session, including a controversial voter ID law that the U.S. Supreme Court could take up this year.

“Chapter 11 has grown quite topsy over time,” accountability board chairman Judge Thomas Barland said at the board’s last meeting, referring to the chapter in state law governing campaign finance. “I think it’s time for a massive change of that.”

The board plans to vote on endorsing a comprehensive legislative rewrite when it next meets later this month.

“Rewriting Chapter 11 would be the most significant change to Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws in the last several decades,” GAB director Kevin Kennedy said.

Last session the Assembly passed a bill with some of the campaign finance changes under consideration, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t have the votes to push them through his own caucus. That’s expected to change with the exit of moderate GOP Sens. Mike Ellis and Dale Schultz.

“Elections reforms will definitely be a priority for our caucus as we head into the coming legislative session,” Fitzgerald said.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said if the Legislature wants to rewrite Chapter 11 it should involve the nonpartisan GAB, similar to how the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents reviewed and made recommendations for its reserves.

“It adds a lot more credibility when you have a group that’s been charged with this process and by and large has done a pretty successful job,” Barca said.

The state’s campaign finance laws were first developed in the 1970s and ’80s as a way to curb the influence of money in politics. They include things like a $10,000 contribution limit for statewide offices, disclosure requirements for groups that spend as little as $300 on campaign activity and definitions of what constitutes campaign activity.

Over the years several court rulings have struck down parts of the law, forcing the state’s elections agency and, since it was created in 2008, the GAB to clarify the law through administrative rules reviewed by the Legislature.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, an election watchdog group, said he’s not opposed to the Legislature rewriting Chapter 11, which has become “like Swiss cheese — it’s full of holes.”

“If you’re going to do this, let’s do it in a way that makes sense and not just open the floodgates to unlimited outside dark money,” Heck said.

In a May decision in a case brought by Wisconsin Right to Life, 7th Circuit Appellate Court Judge Diane Sykes called Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws “labyrinthian and difficult to decipher” without a legal background. Another federal court decision by Judge Rudolph Randa effectively eliminated limits on how much individuals can contribute to political parties and other non-candidate campaign committees, which had been capped at $10,000 in the aggregate. Limits on how much candidates can receive are still in place, but a $10,000 limit on the total amount an individual could give to all candidates was struck down.

In response, GAB staff advised the nonpartisan elections agency’s panel of six retired judges at its Dec. 16 meeting to recommend 20 changes to the state’s campaign finance laws. They also highlighted eight general areas that the Legislature may want to consider amending, such as redefining what is considered a “political purpose” when determining whether contributions and spending need to be reported, and re-establishing contribution limits on non-candidate campaign committees.

But Judge Elsa Lamelas, a GAB board member, raised concerns that the recommendations amounted to a “patchwork fix.”

“One of the most powerful things we can do is acknowledge that this statute needs a rewrite,” she said.

Barland agreed, though he cautioned that it would be “a huge project” and not “something that can be done in a matter of a few months.” He suggested bringing in national experts to advise the Legislature.

Legislative leaders said they want to move more quickly. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he wants to take up legislation as early as January.

Vos said he supports doubling contribution limits to candidate campaign committees — amounts established in 1973. He doesn’t support creating new contribution limits to non-candidate committees, which weren’t previously necessary because the aggregate limits, now deemed unconstitutional, acted as de facto limits on such giving.

Vos also wants to ensure the law guarantees both unions and corporations can contribute to political parties. State law carves out an exemption allowing unions, but not corporations, to make such contributions. Vos is not pushing to allow corporations to give directly to candidates.

Sen.-elect Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Elections & Local Government, said with the courts and GAB in agreement that the law is too confusing and burdensome, the time to act has arrived.

“I’m concerned about the chilling effect the state’s current campaign finance laws have on our First Amendment rights,” LeMahieu said. “We need to modernize our laws this session to give clear guidance to individuals and groups wishing to engage in the political process.”

Election rules looked at

In addition to changing the laws governing campaign finance, Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, chairwoman of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee, is examining changes to how elections are administered. Proposals she is considering include a strict standard for photography in polling places that would apply to both the general public and media.

Current law doesn’t prohibit cameras in polling places, but GAB policy does for anyone except members of the media and disability advocates.

Bernier, a former Chippewa County clerk, is considering a ban on all recording devices, even for media. But Vos said he has concerns with that idea, preferring a standard that would allow all members of the public to record at polling places. Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said the current system works fine.

Bernier also wants to test poll workers on their knowledge of election laws. Vos said he could see testing chief inspectors, but testing all poll workers could discourage participation.

Bernier is also considering moving the spring election primary from mid-February to early February to alleviate a time crunch for local clerks between the primary and the spring election. Also, Bernier supports setting up an online voter registration system for people with valid driver’s licenses.

Kaminski said her organization is concerned Republicans will resurrect other proposals that would limit access to the ballot, such as eliminating early voting or same-day registration.

Bernier said if the state’s voter ID law continues to be stalled in the courts or is struck down, she would consider doing away with same-day registration. Conversely, she said, if voter ID is upheld, she doesn’t see the need for such a step.

“When you have same-day voter registration, it is even more important to have processes and procedures in place that verify somebody’s identity,” Bernier said.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.