Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he wants to “protect a free and vigorous debate” in Wisconsin.
Just don’t ask him who is speaking.
The Republican leader just unveiled a package of bad-government bills that, among other failings, would encourage more anonymous donors to flood state elections with secret money.
Vos’ campaign finance proposal would leave a giant loophole in state law, allowing candidates to coordinate with outside special interest groups that can raise unlimited money from hidden donors. Prior to a state Supreme Court ruling last summer, coordination had been prohibited for decades. Vos should have slammed the loophole shut.
After all, if big donors can give as much as they want to groups that work with candidates to get them elected, why would anyone with a lot of money give directly to candidates, which requires disclosure and limits on contributions?
Under Vos’ proposal, special interest groups can raise and spend as much anonymously donated money as they want – and coordinate with campaigns on strategy – if they simply refrain from using words such as “vote for” or “support” or “defeat.” So long as those phrases aren’t used in political ads, anything goes.
“The net effect of this plan is effectively the complete deregulation of campaign finance law in Wisconsin, including any meaningful transparency or disclosure,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.
He’s right. We hope Vos’ fellow Republicans who control the statehouse — particularly good-government proponents in the Senate — will understand the dire consequences and stop this bad bill from advancing.
Free speech must be respected. But those who speak anonymously by spending huge sums on political advertising just before elections are cowards. They should have to identify themselves and follow the same rules as anyone else, such as small donors who give directly to candidates, or ordinary citizens who identify themselves before speaking at a public hearing.
Vos says his bill will increase campaign-finance reporting requirements. For example, political action committees would have to report the unlimited contributions they could receive.
But his bill fails to require reporting for outside “issue advocacy” groups that spend millions on electioneering and can now coordinate with any candidate they choose.
Back when he was a state lawmaker, Gov. Scott Walker understood the danger of anonymous electioneering. He warned that foreign sources could secretly funnel money into Wisconsin to influence voter decisions.
The governor’s concern has faded now that he’s benefited from millions in anonymous money, including from mining and business interests. But Republicans should remember that Democrats will be able to play the same game, too, with their wealthy donors.
Consistent disclosure is a much better policy for our democracy so citizens know who is saying what in an attempt to influence their votes.