Cleaning up Campaigns

I was a candidate for the first time in my life when I ran for the state Senate in 2006. I had no money and no experience as an elected official. During the campaign I struggled with political people for control of both the campaign’s message and its resources. Even though I maintained control of what our campaign did, there was a great deal of activity that I could not control.

What I learned later was that there are “issue ad” groups that are virtually immune from state law, can say darn near anything, can take money that is illegal for the rest of us and candidates, like me, are forbidden from talking with or influencing these groups in any way.

Campaign laws ban corporate contributions in an effort to keep campaigns clean. But these issue groups have figured out a way to bring money into our state, run advertising and attack candidates with virtually no rules regarding what is said or who pays.

These “issue ads” can include the likeness and name of a candidate and can run ads right up to Election Day. The groups sponsoring the ads have pretty sounding names like “All Children Matter” or “Americans for Prosperity” but are paid for by groups with political agendas who are often headquartered in or near Washington, D.C.

It’s a bad system and one I and my colleagues are working to change. Last Wednesday the Senate passed a bill that would put restrictions on these outside interest groups and their campaigning.

The bill, Senate Bill 77, would require the “issue groups” to disclose the source of their money; who they are and who is behind the group. It’s a bit like taking the mask off. As Sen. John Lehman said on the Senate floor, the bill would “let them say the nasty stuff, but make them have their names attached to it.”

Campaign contributions from corporations to these groups would be outlawed under the bill. This rule is already followed by candidates and political parties. Bob La Follette would be grateful.

Sometimes I think former Gov. La Follette would turn over in his grave if he saw what has happened to Wisconsin politics. Unfortunately, changing the system is not going to be easy. I could see, in debate in caucus and on the floor, that old ways die hard. This was especially true when we debated and passed another bill – one that would ban lobbying by legislators for a year after they leave elected office.

The bill seems like common sense to me – and is really just a small step towards cleaning up government. The bill did pass 30-3 but not without a great deal of debate. Both bills now go to the Assembly.

But these reform efforts do not go far enough. Both fundraising and ethics in campaigns need reform. The Senate will likely debate other bills that seek to bring more public money into the political process - something that could be difficult in a year of tight budgets.

Speaking of budgets, the legislature is entering its most intense time in the two-year cycle. The time for state-wide budget hearings are over and the real work on the budget has begun in earnest. This week the budget for schools will be debated and I will be advocating for resources for our struggling local schools.

I can see – as the budget debates move into full swing – how intense the debates are and how often those without resources are left out of the debates. An additional reform I would suggest is that legislators should be banned from fundraising during the budget process.

Requiring law makers to devote their full attention to the important and difficult decisions they must make during the budget by banning fundraising during the budget time is another step we can take to assure that all voices are heard in our state house – not just those with money to spread around.

Do you have ideas on reform in government or other state issues? Let me know! Call Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; In Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.