Let's start with a basic assumption. Voters have a right to know who is trying to influence elections.
By that measure, Wisconsin is failing. Our state's campaign finance disclosure system is a wreck.
Back in mid-November the state Government Accountability Board released figures showing special interest groups had reported spending close to $10 million on elections in 2010. We were pretty sure that was more than the tip of the iceberg, but also had strong reasons to believe there was much more spending that was below the radar.
After examining TV ad invoices, scouring IRS filings and turning over countless other stones, we were able to find about $9 million more that was spent. And there was almost certainly still more campaigning that escaped our notice.
So the bottom line is that Wisconsin's disclosure system accounted for barely half of the campaign spending by outside interest groups, if that. That is not disclosure that upholds the right of voters to know who is influencing elections.
When it comes to who actually supplied the interest groups with the $19 million they spent on election advertising, the state's disclosure laws failed us to an even greater extent. Less than a third of the money ($6 million of the $19 million) could be traced to identifiable donors. Most of it came from anonymous sources. That is not disclosure that protects the right of voters to know who is influencing elections.
Of those few groups that disclosed donations, some reported spending millions of dollars but only identified a small number of contributions they received to pay for their spending. For example, the Republican Governors Association's RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC reported spending $3.48 million but only reported $31,190 in contributions. Where did the rest of the money come from? The public is left to guess.
Other groups reported receiving much larger amounts in contributions. The only catch is they listed themselves as the donors. On the right, the Republican State Leadership Committee reported spending $935,726 and receiving $772,091 in contributions. Who was so generous? Why, the Republican State Leadership Committee. On the left, a group called Advancing Wisconsin reported spending $558,895 and receiving $270,500 in donations . . . from itself. Where did the money really come from? The public is kept in the dark. That is not disclosure that comes close to satisfying the voters' right to know who is influencing elections.
For years, I've heard one Republican politician after another say they don't believe in limits on what's given to campaigns or spent on elections but they do believe all the money should be immediately and publicly reported. Let the money flow, but disclose everything. That's been their mantra.
Now the Republicans are in charge at the State Capitol. They control both the Assembly and Senate as well as the governor's office. Will their word become law? Or will the identities of those who are buying elections and, by extension, taking ownership of our government remain a carefully guarded secret?