Is there too much money in Wisconsin politics?
Many Wisconsin “good government” groups, like Common Cause, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the League of Women Voters, all advocate reforms in how election campaigns are financed.
It galls them that Wisconsin’s two-year state budget was 101 days late. They do not care that it was Wisconsin Assembly Republicans and Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch who went to the mat to avoid massive state tax increases on Wisconsin families. Never mind that Wisconsin government does not shut down when the budget is late, unlike most states. They see special interest groups behind everything the Legislature does.
They say that the full-time Wisconsin legislature does nothing and that a ban on campaign contributions from PACS, limiting campaign spending or public financing is the key to success. Some Wisconsin legislators, especially the minority and majority leaders of each chamber, are really full-time. Some have other jobs to provide for their families on the days in each week when they are not in Madison. Wisconsin legislators are paid about $47,500 per year plus a per diem of up to $77 per day on legislative business.
That sounds like a lot, but Wisconsin’s legislative salary is actually the lowest of nine full-time state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Let’s look at the legislative pay of our neighbors. Illinois pays legislators approximately $57,600 and they get a per diem of $125 on session days; Michigan pays about $79,600 per year plus a sum of $12,000 from which they draw a per diem.
There are three effects from banning PAC money, limiting campaign spending or public financing of elections. First, incumbency would be enhanced, because incumbents have an advantage in lists, official mailings to raise name identification and district connections. Potential challengers could not raise money to offset these advantages. Second, as legislators retire, they will be replaced by union activists, retired persons with pensions and millionaires who can all afford to run. The Wisconsin legislature would become more liberal and tax-friendly, run by people who would not serve long enough to develop expertise in public policy so lobbyists will become more influential, not less.
Finally, money is a type of free speech. That was the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo. When money is outlawed, only outlaws will have money. In-kind donations or secret contributions will soar. Disclosure of campaign contributions from any source and amount is healthy for a democracy.
When government reformers propose strong medicine to drive money out of political campaigns, watch your wallet.