So much for the Wisconsin Senate sticking up for good-government principles.
The Republican-run Senate caved last weekend to the Assembly’s demands for weak oversight of state election and ethics rules.
The only hope now, as the Assembly prepares to send two bad bills to the governor Monday, is a pair of vetoes. Unfortunately, Gov. Scott Walker has shown little interest in preserving a nonpartisan and independent GAB to settle partisan disputes over campaign tactics and spending. The governor, it appears, would rather put the politicians in charge of policing themselves.
We hope we’re wrong about his intensions. The public this week should encourage Gov. Walker to veto Assembly Bill 387 and Assembly Bill 388, given the significant damage these two pieces of legislation would do to clean and transparent government in Wisconsin.
AB 387 would double the money donors could give directly to Wisconsin candidates for public office. And donors no longer would have to identify their employers. (That means money from payday lenders, for example, couldn’t be easily tracked).
AB 387 would allow large donations by corporations, unions and American Indian tribes to political parties and the legislative campaign committees controlled by top state lawmakers.
Worse, AB 387 would let candidates coordinate their campaigns with anonymous “issue ad” groups that don’t disclose their donors. Wisconsin would be the only state other than Florida to allow such coordination, according to Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.
The result will be more dark money from hidden donors paying for expensive political ads before elections.
“That’s where all the money is going to flow,” Heck said. “Why give $20,000 (directly) to the governor when you can hide it.”
At the same time, the Republican-run Legislature is dismantling a strong and effective GAB, which is controlled by six retired judges insulated as much as possible from partisan politics. The GAB has served Wisconsin well as a neutral referee, deciding difficult disputes between political parties and candidates during the heat of campaigns.
AB 388 kills the GAB, replacing it with two weak boards controlled by the partisan pals of top politicians. The boards will even have to ask lawmakers for money to investigate the very same lawmakers. In other words, no serious investigations allowed.
Sens. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and others amended the bill to keep two retired judges on a new ethics panel. But four other panel members will be political hacks, as will everyone on a second board overseeing election rules.
The change is only a slight improvement to a bill that dramatically moves Wisconsin backward. Marklein, Olsen and other senators should have voted no.
A veto of AB 388 would preserve the GAB as a powerful deterrent to corruption. A veto of AB 387 would protect the public’s right to know who is bankrolling political ads before elections.