Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Dark Money Will Rule Wisconsin

Two Republican bills about to pass could make this a vassal state of wealthy special interests.

By - Nov 10th, 2015 01:09 pm
Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald.

Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald.

Imagine you are a corporation or wealthy person looking to buy a politician and purchase a certain policy decision. In Wisconsin that is about to become very simple.

Under the new laws, you will be able to spend as much as you want — mega-millions perhaps — to support a politician and your donation will remain a secret to the public, so no one will ever know the policy this politician is supporting was requested by you.

“We are going to be drowning in a sea of dark money and it will give corporations and wealthy people more power over our electoral system in Wisconsin than ever before,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “It’s going to be the Wild West. Anything goes.”

And because the new laws will kill the watchdog Government Accountability Board and replace it with an paper tiger controlled by the legislature, “you will have unlimited money spent with no fear of being investigated or prosecuted,” says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause of Wisconsin.

“It will create an atmosphere where political corruption and criminality are going to fester,” Rothschild predicts.

These guys make their living, of course, championing simon-pure government. So are they over-dramatizing the situation? Let’s consider what the Republican legislature has proposed.

One proposed change, on campaign donations, will double the amount donors can give. That’s a red herring. Given that the limit hadn’t been increased in decades, it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, which might be why Republican leaders like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (who are driving this legislation) put all the emphasis on that.

In fact, these limits will be irrelevant for big givers, who will now have other ways to give unlimited donations. For starters, a wealthy individual or corporation or big union can simply give money — and secretly — to right-wing or left-wing advocacy groups. Under the new law, these so-called “independent” groups can now coordinate with the candidates, something never previously allowed, to make sure the money is being spent in ways the candidate wants.

“Why bother with the $20,000 limit (the new limit on individual donations to a candidate for governor) when you can give unlimited donations to advocacy groups who can then coordinate with the campaigns?” Heck asks.

This coordination can occur in two ways under the new law. First, the advocacy groups that are less direct, that mimic traditional campaign ads but escape regulation by avoiding phrases such as “vote for” and “vote against,” are now allowed to coordinate their activities with the campaigns of candidates they favor. This is in opposition to decades of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have made clear such coordination is not legal.  Florida, says Heck, is the only other state with a law allowing such coordination.

But the law also opens the door to coordination with campaigns by “express advocacy groups,” those that do directly tell you how to vote. This new provision says such coordination is only barred when candidates specifically request the group spend money in a certain way and the group in turn explicitly agrees to do so.

In short, Rothschild notes, “if the candidates don’t explicitly request it, and simply say, ‘isn’t this a good idea, to spend your money this way on this ad,’ then it’s legal. This is a loophole large enough to drive a Koch Industries truck through it.”

Even the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which bent over backwards to support conservative advocacy groups, in its egregious decision on the John Doe probe, made it clear that express advocacy groups cannot coordinate with campaigns. Now they can coordinate freely, to a degree that no state has ever sanctioned.

The new law will also allow another way to evade campaign regulations: simply give directly to political parties. Wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and tribes will now be allowed to give unlimited amounts of money to the Republican or Democratic parties and the parties can then divvy out the money to their candidates.

This will give tremendous power to the four legislative leaders: Senate majority and minority leaders and Assembly Speaker and minority leader. “The legislative leaders will be able to enforce tough discipline to discourage independent stands or even thoughts by individual legislators,” Heck says. “They can deny money to candidates or even run other candidates against them.

Republican legislators, in short, are voting for a plan that may turn them into pliant sheep who must obey their leaders. And the four legislative leaders will have the kind of campaign coffers and party power that led to the caucus scandal of 15 years ago. Many big donors won’t bother with rank-and-file legislators and will simply make a deal with the leadership, in most cases with the two Republicans who will hold all power. “It’s about dictatorial power and it’s a recipe for political corruption,” says Heck.

But Republican leaders have taken care to make sure any such corruption can’t be investigated. They previously made it illegal for prosecutors to do any John Doe probes of political corruption and have not allocated any money for grand jury-led probes, which are considerably more expensive to do. But the second of the two laws about to be passed will also end the watchdog oversight of the Government Accountability Board.

The GAB was created in response to the caucus scandal; an overwhelming bipartisan majority of legislators created a watchdog agency with a board made up of retired judges. Since it was created the board has always had a majority of judges with a Republican background. But Republicans were outraged by the GAB’s decisions and will make sure the current director, Kevin Kennedy is displaced, while replacing the GAB with an elections commission and ethics commission, each of which will have a board with equal representation by Republican and Democratic appointees. At the best this will create gridlock, as a panel equally split between the parties won’t approve any investigations.

But two other provisions will assure complete protection only for Republicans. If the boards can’t agree on who to appoint as the new executive directors of the two new commissions — which seems certain — the decisions pass to the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, where Republicans hold a majority. And the new ethics and elections commissions will have no money to pursue an investigation unless it is approved by the legislature, where Republicans control both houses. “The GAB has been totally denuded of any power,” Heck says.

The new structure provides good protection — divided boards — from any discipline or investigation of Democrats, but provides triple protection — divided boards, final say on the executive directors and total control of any funding for investigations — to Republicans. Small wonder Heck and Rothschild predict that political corruption will be rife under such a system.

The media has often put more emphasis on the other parts of the new laws, perhaps because they are easier to understand. Yes, the contribution limits are being raised for traditional political donations, and yes, these donors will no longer have to list their occupation (something that is required in 35 states, Heck notes.) This, too, will make government less transparent, shielding all political donors from full disclosure and making it harder to detect when a bill is being pushed by a certain industry, business or union.

But the bigger fish, one suspects, won’t even bother with traditional donations. They will be able to give unlimited and secret money to those right-wing or left-wing advocacy groups who will then coordinate with the candidates they favor. And they will demand the policies they want from legislative leaders and provide the requested amount of donations to seal the deal. And they can do all this free from disclosure, knowing state watchdog agencies are unable to police any unethical or illegal actions by legislators or donors.

Most of the undisclosed deals will be made by conservatives and Republican legislators because the GOP now holds all the power in the Capitol. But the law is written to give all this unchecked power to whichever party is in the majority. If the state senate flips or if the next governor is a Democrat, the unlimited and undisclosed money will flow in a more bipartisan direction and Democratic leaders are unlikely to reject the power this will give them. Such power will inevitably corrupt both parties.

The big losers here are the citizens of this state, who will see this state quickly turned into a government ruled by dark money and secret deals. As Rothschild marvels, “it’s really an unbelievable thing for a state that use to pride itself on clean and open government.”

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

15 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How Dark Money Will Rule Wisconsin”

  1. Joanne Brown says:

    To me, this is the most interesting part of the corruption scheme: “Republican legislators, in short, are voting for a plan that may turn them into pliant sheep who must obey their leaders. And the four legislative leaders will have the kind of campaign coffers and party power that led to the caucus scandal of 15 years ago. Many big donors won’t bother with rank-and-file legislators and will simply make a deal with the leadership, in most cases with the two Republicans who will hold all power.”

    It was pretty clear in some comments made by lower-tier Republican legislators that they did not understand the implications of the bills. (And I doubt that Robin Vos or Scott Fitzgerald enlightened them.) But what self-respecting person willingly puts himself or herself completely under the control of someone? It’s not as if either Vos or Fitzgerald is charismatic (though Fitz has those steely-blue eyes), so I wonder whether Vos and Fitzgerald might have “misled” their fellows on these bills. And do any of these guys and gals have enough, again, self respect or wit to acknowledge they’ve been hoodwinked?

  2. These laws have backfired to an extent on the Republican party. When legislators got most of their money from the party, the party leadership had some control over their members. They could give a politician a carrot to compromise. Not so with the Tea Party that thrives on superpacks.

  3. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Dark money has ruled for years, it rules Milwaukee right now through the unions, no one knows who gives that money.
    The white, liberal, male, racists and unions that have ruled Milwaukee for 100 years has given us no idea who is pulling the strings.
    We need to go to open donations, from anyone, of any amount, as it was in the 60’s as long as they are identified. Worked well then, and would work now.
    I have run or been in 100 plus campaigns. This nutty bunch of rules from Feingold and co. plus many others has made way too many people violators for no reason. Clintons have shown how to get foreign money galore, millions from their corrupt enterprise.
    Money will always be in politics, has since the first elections. It will not be controlled under free speech, so let us just be honest, let the businesses and unions give to the ones they want but it must be idenitified.

  4. Brent Holman says:

    I’m reminded of the ‘Golden Apple’ mythological story…Wisconsin also is not a plum to be picked & consumed by Corporate American Power…
    I think they flipped votes to get elected anyway. I read Citizens United as Citizens = Corporations, so let’s do a 50 million strong corporate-merger & kick these Neanderthals back to the stone age.

  5. Jake says:

    Just leave it to WI conservative digest to try to pass the buck. Can’t bring himself to fault his own hatchet men. As long as they are punishing libs, democrats, minority voting rights, etc….he could cars less.

  6. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    What a bunch of poopoo. Obama spent billion in 2008, McCain 200 million. big money people headed up by Soros and company spend far more than the GOP does, quit your BS.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    Hey WCD, how about some facts? Can you handle some facts? In the 2012 presidential election, Super PACS spent $610 million. $406 million was spent by conservatives. That’s more than 60%. Sorry but “Soros and company” do not outspend “Koch and company.” Not even close.

    More importantly, you claim to support identification even if unlimited donations are allowed. That isn’t the case here. The donations are unlimited and secret. Do you get that?

  8. jake says:

    I thought principles are partyless. So why I’d WCD trying to justify what WI conservatives are doing, if it’s wrong for democrats?

  9. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Kochs were 59th on the list and you took the PACs without the unions, which is also Dark Money and that buries the PAC’s. Obama way outspent thte GOP candidates especially Romney for 4 months. No, the money that the Clinto,s get from overseas added in and used for politics is far worse. The Dems created Dark money: Feingold. Obama got lots of money laundered from over seas, Dark money.

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    It’s like talking to a wall, only a wall is smarter. It doesn’t matter who created dark money. That is not the issue here. And the 2012 candidates spent an identical amount of money, but again, not the issue. You call for identification, but this makes the unlimited donations secret, therefore you are clearly against it.

  11. wisconsin conservative Digest says:

    We have been for going back to the rules of the 60’s where anyone can give unlimited amounts to parties and candidates as long as they do it and it is reported, but the SCOTUS sez that free speech allows anyone to spend money on issues and spend what they want as the Left and the Right and the Corporatists do all the time, all year long.
    Only thing that changes that is constitutional amendment that will not happen.

  12. Todd M. says:

    Dark money will rule, but it will be flowing with both parties. The way I see it it’s been going on forever anyway in one form or another. It’s a big slime-bath and the politicians are up to their necks in bubbles.

  13. tim haering says:

    Who cares if it’s dark or light or day or night … it’s money moving through our economy, like that extra pint of blood in Armstrong’s Tour de France. It’s a conservative way to implement Obama’s wealth redistribution. But like escaped crude, it won’t go or do what they want and thwarts recapture. ALL more reason to finish the Keystone Pipeline. Rubio won, but Rubio rhymes with newbie-oh. We already got a sharp-witted rookie CEO. NO mas! How’s that for a fine digression, Bruce? Happy Non Sequitur Day!

  14. Observor says:

    Well that clears things up for me.

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