State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, would like to change the way Wisconsin records campaign donations. He’s introduced a bill to raise the threshold for when donors to state and local campaigns must disclose their occupations from its current level of more than $100 to more than $500.
The bill would also eliminate the requirement that the donor’s principal place of employment be disclosed.
Grothman says the change is needed to reduce the harassment of businesses whose employees back candidates. In 2012, for instance, boycotts were launched against some companies whose executives backed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
The bill, SB 282 and its companion, AB 378, has had hearings in both legislative houses and appears to be on a fast track to passage.
But the bill is a bad idea, for various reasons. That’s why it has drawn opposition from editorial boards, good government groups and even people like me: a blogger for the website Fairly Conservative.
As I told the Senate committee that held a recent hearing on this bill, I rely on databases that provide campaign finance information. I use them to identify contributors, note patterns and break stories.
A couple of weeks ago, I noted that the Potawatomi were big donors to Walker; the tribe opposes the expansion of casino gambling, which Walker has the power to do. In Brookfield, I use similar reports to determine which developers are bankrolling which local candidates.
Employer information also helps differentiate donors.
Believe it or not, there is more than one Mary Burke who lives in Madison and who has given money to state candidates. It helps that some donations are identified with her former employer, Trek Bicycle.
Grothman and committee chair Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, noted that a donor’s occupation would still be listed for donations of under $500, just not his or her employer. But removing this information would it make impossible to get a true picture of how much money is coming in from, say, casino employees.
Currently, the maximum contribution to Assembly candidates as well as every school board, municipal and county (except Milwaukee) candidate fall under the new threshold. This information would disappear for all of their donors.
According to Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, 96 percent of the 862,064 donations in its “Follow the Money” database are for $500 or less.
Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel of the state Government Accountability Board, which compiles and posts campaign finance information for state candidates, also opposes the change.
Kennedy told the Senate committee that his agency has used the employee information to identify instances in which wealthy donors were evading spending limits by illegally funneling contributions through their employees.
As for people and business getting blowback because of the candidates they support, Kennedy said, “That's part of the price of our democracy.”
The Wisconsin law that covers campaign financing begins with a declaration, which reads in part: “When the true source of support or extent of support is not fully disclosed, or when a candidate becomes overly dependent upon large private contributors, the democratic process is subjected to a potential corrupting influence.”
I agree. While businesses have legitimate concerns about operating in safety, boycotts are a respected component of our American political environment. There are laws already in place to guard against some of the intimidation and harassment Grothman cited during his defense of the bill.
Wisconsin has a proud history of transparency in government. We can continue that tradition by rejecting this attempt to restrict the public’s right to know.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Cindy Kilkenny, who blogs at Fairly Conservative and is the author of an ebook on Scott Walker, lives in Brookfield.