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Election ads get supreme boost

By Matt Pommer

Remember when your parents or your teachers wanted to know where you got that wacky idea. The source was important to them.

Seeking the source seems relevant in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision opening wide the floodgates of corporate and union cash during election campaigns. While the ruling came down in a federal case, it seems sure to wipe out the 105-year-old Wisconsin law prohibiting corporate spending to help elect or defeat candidates for office.

The decision will be a gold mine for television and radio stations in the upcoming Wisconsin gubernatorial and legislative elections. By Election Day, people may be very tired of the barrage of electronic ads.

But the public ought to know who “says so.” Most newspapers print political letters only if the writer is disclosed. The opinion is far more powerful when a name is attached to the idea. The editors or editorial boards also are identified for readers.

Disclosure of political influence is an issue before the Legislature. The state Senate has voted 26 to 7 to require groups running advertisements to disclose where the money comes from.

Some special interest groups are furious at the idea they would have to tell where they get their money. One example is the anti-abortion Wisconsin Right to Life, which argues requiring the disclosure amounts to “legislative attempts to censure speech.”

Wisconsin Right to Life has vowed legal challenges to the “says who” state legislation if it becomes law. The bill, of course, doesn’t prohibit any group from saying whatever it wants.

But it could make it more difficult to raise money, especially from business and corporate interests. The business folks might fear retribution from those who disagree with the ads.

On the other hand, a list of contributors could make issue ads far more powerful. If you recognize the names the ad could be far more influential.

But the “says who” legislation could change the status quo, and the status quo is traditionally supported by those who are doing very well, including raising money and influencing the public.

Many corporations may have been delighted with the law that limited corporate donations. The law let them fend off politicians seeking financial help. That excuse is on the way out.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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