By Matt Pommer
Feb. 11, 2002
Chances of meaningful campaign finance reform in Wisconsin now range between slim and none. Republican Gov. Scott McCallum is refusing to promise he wouldn’t use his partial veto power to rewrite any agreement that may be reached between Democrats and Republicans. The governor wraps his refusal in a "good government" argument, saying it would be improper for a chief executive to make that sort of promise on important legislation.
Wisconsin governors are the most powerful in the nation, thanks to a 1930 constitutional amendment that allows them to make partial changes in any legislation that contains appropriations. The Wisconsin Supreme Court over the decades has construed that power broadly. Governors in Wisconsin can delete words and sentences to turn the effect of legislation 180 degrees from what the Legislature intended.
Democrats say they don’t mind a negotiated reform package with Republicans, but they don’t want to let a Republican governor merely rewrite legislation in a form that would give advantages to the Republican Party. Democrats, who control the state Senate, have taken a reform package beyond the amendable stage but have not given it final Senate approval.
Without a pledge of neutrality from McCallum, the Democrats feared the Republicans Assembly would merely approve the Senate version, then send it to the governor’s office allowing McCallum to uses his partial veto pen on the bill to craft new campaign finance law.
Ironically, the Senate legislation is basically drafted by state Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, a former Republican floor leader in the Senate. The Ellis legislation seeks to reduce the power of well-financed special interests to influence elections. Like current law, candidates who abide by campaign spending limits would receive state grants. More important, they also would receive monies to offset any "issue ad" spending or campaign attacks conducted by special interest organizations.
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The big players on the political stage — Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the teachers union, antiabortion groups, and others —- don’t like the idea that their messages, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, might be offset by state grants to those being attacked. Opponents of Ellis’ ideas argue that it would be a great error to use taxpayer dollars for election campaigns. A waste of taxpayer money, they say. Proponents of Ellis’ idea note that the huge special interest spending has had the effect of "buying" a Legislature. The special interests spend money in elections because they expect something in return. Often what is sought in return can be very expensive to the taxpayers of Wisconsin. The current system favors incumbents, and, not surprisingly, a lot of incumbents like the current system. The current system also favors development of powerful leaders in the Legislature.
They are the people who can quickly raise tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash. The smart rank-and-file legislator follows his leader on floor votes. He might become more concerned about the person who raises campaign cash than he does about the voters back home.
But reform may not be dead. John Doe investigations are under way into the campaign finance activities of the majority parties in the Legislature — Republicans in the Assembly and Democrats in the state Senate. The results could turn public opinion with citizens demanding change.
Matt Pommer is the dean of
correspondents covering the state Capitol.