Today as Scott Walker reported to the Milwaukee County Courthouse for his “voluntary” appointment with the District Attorney concerning the John Doe investigation into the corrupt campaign and administrative practices of his 2002 – 2010 Milwaukee County Executive reign, his henchmen in the legislature in Madison were busy pushing forward legislation designed to make those kinds of practices harder to detect.
The Assembly Committee on Elections and Campaign Reform held a hearing on three bills Monday: one clarifying who runs elections in newly incorporated cities and villages; one constraining absentee ballot procedures in light of the new voter ID law; and another forbidding the Government Accountability Board, Wisconsin’s non-partisan election oversight body, from making rules regarding campaign finance disclosures.
It was the bill prohibiting GAB from making rules relating to campaign finance disclosures that drew most of the testimony. AB 196/SB 139 was introduced by the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules back in June. Last year I reported extensively on how Walker is using this committee to consolidate power within his office in light of Act 21. The referral of bills to this committee effectively voids the rules in question, because they cannot be enforced while under review. This means that if Walker or a member of the Joint Committee decides they do not like a rule made by any state agency, they can take it up in committee and let it hang in limbo through the end of the session.
The bills have been languishing in this administrative limbo until this week as committees in both the Senate and the Assembly have taken them up ahead of next week’s floor period. The Senate Elections Committee will hold a hearing on the bill this coming Thursday.
AB 196/SB 139 would repeal the GAB’s attempt to render contributions made by non-PAC “independent” donors to political campaigns transparent. According to Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause, the GAB wrote the rule in July 2010 after the legislature failed to pass a campaign finance disclosure law during their spring session.
Heck pointed out that in their January 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission decision, eight of the nine US Supreme Court Justices urged states to pass disclosure laws since by this decision they were opening up the floodgates to corporate influence in elections. By passing disclosure laws, voters would at least be able to identify the source of this money.
In presenting the bill to the Assembly hearing today, Rep. Jim Ott, chair of the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, tried to portray the rule as outdated and unwieldy in its application, since it requires any independent organization donating more than $25 to a candidate to register with the GAB. Heck countered this assertion, stating that the rule was specifically designed for large for-profit and non-profit corporate donors, and that the $25 was set forth in statute that was beyond the purview of the GAB. “The GAB said they didn’t have any intention of going after the individuals . . . . The intention was to go after the widely disseminated and broadcast communications.”
Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an organization that tracks campaign spending with an extensive searchable database, explained the state’s century-long tradition of not allowing corporations to spend money on elections. When the Citizens United vs. FEC decision came down from the US Supreme Court, Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws were seriously weakened. Corporations still can’t contribute directly to political candidates, but they can form organizations under section 527 of the US Internal Revenue Code to donate. The GAB rule in question required these organizations to report their spending, but not the source of their donations.
McCabe appealed to the self-interest of the legislators at the table saying, “You’re already in a situation where candidates matter less than interest groups. They are playing by an entirely different set of rules. They can raise money from sources that you can’t tap into, and they can take unlimited amounts from sources you’re unable to accept.”
Representative JoCasta Zamarippa echoed these concerns, saying, “We know that individual contributors to our campaigns have to tell us who they are and where they’re employed. I don’t understand why we can’t make corporations adhere to that same requirement.” Her colleague Kelda Helen Roys added, “Corporations will be given the rights of humans, but none of the responsibilities of humans and citizens, and you’re stopping the GAB from ever making rules about it.”
The pernicious underpinnings of “corporate personhood” were brought out by Ed Kuharski, a lifelong resident of Wisconsin. “It is particularly troubling to me that we’re having this discussion on the first week of Black History Month. Since 1875 these arguments equating corporations with black Africans, saying they should be considered people under the same constitutional amendment, have been made.” He added, “If we’re going to be real patriots and citizens and stop throwing battery acid on our body politic, we should assert our state’s rights and say no private money in politics. That would be worth your time. This is not.”
Apart from Jim Ott, chair of the committee that authored the bill, nobody testified in favor of it. However, two lobbying organizations have registered their support: Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc.
At the center of the Scott Walker/John Doe investigation are sketchy real estate deals and campaign donations by people doing business with Milwaukee County that could be characterized as “pay-to-play.” With the investigation closing in and a successful recall campaign against him in full swing, it may be no coincidence that this bill is making its way out of legislative limbo just as Scott Walker begins a descent into a political limbo of his own.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.