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Lobbyist bill draws sharp reactions

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

It’s sometimes said that a legislative outcome criticized by opposing sides has struck the perfect balance. By that standard, Senate Bill 655 is a triumph.

The omnibus campaign financing bill, which passed both houses of the state Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker on March 27, has been assailed for both its process and its substance. Meanwhile, some lament that the tsunami of dissent led to it being watered down.

“I’m angry about it,” said Madison attorney Mike Wittenwyler, who testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the Association of Wisconsin Lobbyists. “They had a wonderful opportunity to fix an injustice in state law, and they didn’t do it.”

The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, contained a raft of provisions, most of which are not controversial. For instance, it spares campaigns that submit electronic filings from also having to submit paper reports.

But the bill as introduced also would have let lobbyists “furnish” contributions from others to state political campaigns at any time. And it would have moved the time frame during which lobbyists can make direct donations to April 15 instead of June 1 in election years. During the last such window, in 2012, the Assembly’s Republican leaders began asking lobbyists to pay into a fund for targeted races.

First, there was uproar over process. SB 655 was introduced by Republicans late in the day March 3 and set for a Senate hearing March 5. So was a bill that would have waived disclosure rules for “issue ads” that do not expressly tell people how to vote.

“Beware of late, speedy bills,” chided the Wisconsin State Journal in an editorial, calling the rapid timeline “offensive” and “designed to dodge public scrutiny.” The editorial noted that similar provisions were stripped from an earlier campaign finance bill and presumed dead.

Both bills were roundly ripped for their substance.

cash“We need these changes like we need two more months of winter,” cracked Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan elections watchdog.

The bill to codify the exemption for “issue ad” groups stalled in committee after it drew fire from Wisconsin Right to Life. The GOP-friendly group testified that passing a new law could render its court challenge of the state’s current policy “null and void.”

But SB 655 fared better, despite the attacks.

“No one outside of the Capitol Square in Madison has been clamoring for increasing the ability of lobbyists to make campaign contributions to legislators,” said Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin.

Wittenwyler, who advises lobbyists and interest groups, argued the donation date change merely reflects that the state has moved up its fall primary from mid-September to mid-August. He said the rule against furnishing contributions is unfair to small interest groups because those who would do so cannot because they are also lobbyists.

But, as Capital Times reporter Jack Craver noted, small interest groups are conspicuous in their near absence from the bill’s registered supporters, which include Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. And lobbyist Gary Goyke, a former Democratic lawmaker, said “the law on furnishing has not been a problem” for any of the 18 mostly small interest groups he represents.

The state Senate axed the furnishing provision, or, as Wittenwyler put it, “We’re going to continue to screw small organizations.”

Heck also is unhappy with the final product, which he urged Walker to veto. Heck said moving up the donation period attests to lobbyists’ undue influence and lawmakers’ growing disregard for how their actions appear to the public.

“They don’t care,” he said, “because most of them have utterly safe seats.”

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