Voters are divided on many issues. But there is at least one thing that unites voters of every political stripe. There is tripartisan agreement among voters – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike – that the money in elections needs to be reined in.
Poll after poll by academic institutions, media organizations and private survey research firms shows that a supermajority of voters now believe there is way too much money in politics and unlimited election fundraising and spending is corrupting our government.
Two dozen Wisconsin communities have approved referendums or passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and other related court decisions and allow more vigorous anti-corruption measures to be put in place. Sixteen states and over 500 communities nationwide have done the same.
Assembly Bill 225 goes in exactly the opposite direction. The bill takes the position that there is not enough money in politics. As amended and passed by the state Assembly, AB 225 would double existing state limits on campaign contributions.
A tiny group of donors equal to four one-thousandth of 1% of Wisconsin’s population are bumping up against the current limits. That is not to say these donors are all from Wisconsin. Many of them live outside our state. In 2012 a total of 243 wealthy donors – including 149 from out of state – reached Wisconsin’s $10,000 annual limit on campaign contributions.
In the Assembly, AB 225’s supporters argued that raising the contribution limits would cause donors to give directly to candidates rather than steering so much money to outside interest groups that sponsor their own election advertising, thus reducing the influence of the outside groups. We’ve had 15 tests of this theory in Wisconsin. In the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, the limits weren’t doubled, they were eliminated altogether for the officials targeted for recall. This did not result in less money going to outside groups. They raised and spent more than ever. Despite a single donor giving as much as $510,000 to a candidate, outside groups outspent candidates by a substantial margin. Outside groups accounted for $75.8 million of the overall recall election spending of $137.5 million.
AB 225 makes the most powerful even stronger. For those who already have the loudest voices and the greatest influence in Wisconsin politics, AB 225 increases their capacity to influence candidates for state office by 100%. It is a gift to the four one-thousandth of 1% whose style is cramped by Wisconsin’s limits. It is a kick in the gut for everyone else.