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Fear of corruption drives campaign bill

Paul Snyder
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Contractors that build state projects are ready for a fight if a Wisconsin lawmaker succeeds in preventing them from contributing to political campaigns.

The state’s process of awarding projects is fair enough without piling on a laundry list of restrictions and rules, said Dennis Lynch, vice president of health care services for Neenah-based Miron Construction Co. Inc. and general manager of the company’s Madison office.

“You submit a bid, and you’re going to know by 3 p.m. that day who won, what the bids were and what happened,” he said. “Even if we get expanded project-delivery methods, there’s been a lot of guarantees that this will remain transparent and politics will be taken out of the selection process.”

That’s not enough for state Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, who said he does not want even the perception that a contractor won a state project because it supported the campaign of an incumbent candidate who might have pushed for the project.

Schneider introduced a bill that would prohibit any officer or substantial owner of a company from contributing to the campaign of an incumbent governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state senator or representative. Those who do would get a $1,000 fine or six months in prison.

Schneider said he does not believe the system can root out impropriety despite a transparent bidding process and campaign finance laws that make public the contributors and how much they gave.

“Most people don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “The media is more interested in Britney Spears or David Letterman’s sex affair. If it does get any attention, it’s for a day and then that’s it.”

But Schneider could not provide examples of such corruption.

“I don’t pay much attention to it either,” he said.

That will be the bill’s downfall if it makes it to the governor’s desk, said Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney in the Madison office of Godfrey & Kahn SC. He said courts generally treat such campaign controls with skepticism.

“In the end,” Wittenwyler said, “the only way you can really restrict that kind of political activity is if you can prove your bill is preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Usually, lawmakers behind such bills form study committees or find examples of questionable contract awards, Wittenwyler said. If Schneider cannot produce those examples, he said, the bill likely will lose a court challenge.

That might not be an issue. Although the bill was referred to the Assembly Committee on Campaign Reform, state Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, said he has no intention of scheduling a public hearing.

“I’m not in the business of doing things for show,” said Smith, chairman of the committee. “I want things that actually work.”

Smith said the bill could be unconstitutional because it limits one group of people from making campaign contributions. It doesn’t help, he said, that the bill only applies to incumbent politicians, meaning challengers could still receive the contributions.

The reason, Schneider said, is incumbents are in a position to push for the projects. He said he does not know if the bill is unconstitutional, nor, he said, would he be surprised if the bill dies at the committee’s doorstep.

“I don’t expect anything on anything anymore,” he said.

But if the bill makes it to the governor’s desk, Lynch said, contractors will be waiting.

“One of the great things about this country is I get to vote for who I want and help their campaign if I choose,” he said. “We deal with legislators, we get to see what they’re doing, and I know they work hard to get elected. If we can contribute to someone we believe in, we should.”

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