Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Disappearing Act

Wisconsin Right to Life is the latest special interest group to go below the radar with its efforts to influence state elections. In 2002, the anti-abortion lobbying group ranked 13th among interest groups in so-called "independent expenditures," disclosing campaign spending in 69 Assembly races and 12 Senate races. In 2000, WRL was the 7th highest spender in legislative races, reporting campaign spending for or against candidates in 64 Assembly districts and eight Senate districts.

In 2004, WRL reported no independent expenditures to influence state races. That's right, zero. Yet the group issued a press release trumpeting a "one net pro-life seat gain in the Assembly and a one net pro-life seat gain in the State Senate" and boasting that it was the "only organization on either side of the abortion issue who can claim responsibility" for electoral gains.

WRL says it reached over 100,000 households with phone calls and mailings for state legislative candidates and says radio ads "on behalf of state legislative candidates" reached hundreds of thousands. The group claims it also distributed literature door to door and in churches.

But not a penny of the expense of this statewide effort was publicly disclosed. Like so many of the major special interest groups in Wisconsin, WRL is exploiting a loophole in Wisconsin's campaign finance laws to escape disclosure requirements. An April 2004 Democracy Campaign report called attention to the growing trend toward hidden campaign spending.

The loophole WRL and other groups are using to sidestep disclosure and evade campaign contribution limits is one the U.S. Supreme Court ruled can and should be closed. After this high court ruling, the Democracy Campaign asked the state Elections Board to adopt a truth-in-campaigning rule closing the loophole and wrote a draft rule for the Board's consideration. On three procedural motions, the Board voted to move forward with the rulemaking. But when the time came for a vote on final approval, the state Democratic Party's appointee – who had voted three times in favor of the disclosure rule – switched sides and cast the deciding vote to kill the rule.

The flip-flopping Democratic designee, Martha Love, was not reappointed to the Elections Board. New Democratic Party chairman Joe Wineke replaced her recently with Robert Kasieta of Verona.

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