Wisconsin Republicans embrace secrecy

ONCE AGAIN WITH THIS Legislature, the leaderships’ infatuation with secrecy has prevailed.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Republican state senators backtracked from their earlier flirtations with common sense and ran into the arms of their worst instincts.

They voted to let people make political donations without disclosing their employers. The provision was part of a sweeping rewrite of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws that didn’t pass the Senate until just after midnight. All Democrats voted against the measure, as did Sen. Rob Cowles (R—Allouez), who had the courage to buck his party’s leaders and stand with citizens. The rest of the GOP voted in favor.

We urge Gov. Scott Walker to veto the bill — at least the provision dealing with donors’ employers. The public deserves better from its government.

This bill will make it much harder for citizens to know who is influencing their government. Requiring the names of employers is a basic piece of information that helps citizens track how powerful corporations are doling out influence.

An oft-cited example: William Gardner. In 2011, the CEO of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. was convicted of two felonies for exceeding campaign finance limits and giving personal and company funds to railroad employees so they could make political donations to Walker and other candidates at Gardner’s direction.

Under current law, those illegal contributions could be identified. If Walker signs this bill into law? Maybe not.

That requirement also made it easier for citizens to know that payday lenders had sent thousands of dollars to both Democrats and Republicans in 2009 in an attempt to change state law.

Make no mistake: Republicans pushed through this provision but both parties benefit from it.

We urge Walker to listen to people such as Cowles, who demonstrated a higher degree of respect for citizens than did many of his colleagues.

“I’ve always believed strongly in transparency,” Cowles told reporters. “People deserve that. ... The citizens need information.”

This legislation is reminiscent, though not as audacious, of the thwarted attempt last summer to gut the open records law. Voters should let their legislators — and the governor — know how they feel about this latest assault on open government.

Republicans, of course, were quick to declare their efforts a victory for “free speech.”

But it’s really a victory for the powerful who want to exert influence over lawmakers.

Alberta Darling (R—River Hills), at one time a reasonable voice in the Senate, went so far as to claim that the names of corporations and other employers weren’t relevant and that those parties could face boycotts or worse for making political contributions.

But there is precious little evidence to support her position, and for the public that risk has to be balanced against the benefits of disclosure.

As expected, the Senate also approved a bill that will eliminate the state Government Accountability Board, giving its job of overseeing elections and ethics to two new commissions. The Senate bill would include two former judges on the new ethics commission (the current accountability board is composed of six former judges). That’s an improvement over the Assembly version, but it’s not enough.

Reverting to a system of partisan commissions, which this bill would create, guarantees deadlock. And that will mean no oversight and a watchdog with no teeth. But that’s what this group of legislators seems to want.

Both bills have their genesis, in part, in an investigation of Walker and conservative groups who backed him. That John Doe investigation was ended last summer by the state Supreme Court, which determined that candidates and issue groups can work together.

While Wisconsin campaign finance law was due for a rewrite, this legislation weakens oversight. Consider how it would handle coordination. While collaboration between candidates and express advocacy groups — groups who specifically use words such as “vote for” or “vote against” in their communications — would remain illegal, the bill provides for a very narrow list of activities that can be banned.

All it will take is a wink and a nod to skirt the rules.

Senate Republicans had a chance to end this Legislature’s affair with secrecy. Instead, they remain locked in its embrace. — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 7

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