By our latest count, there are 43 different interest groups spending money like crazy to influence the outcome of state-level elections in Wisconsin this year.
Eleven of the 43 are disclosing their donors while three-quarters of them are able to keep their funding sources a secret. The ones structured in a way that allows them to conceal their donors are doing the vast majority of the spending, so the public is being kept in the dark about the origins of almost all of the money being spent by outside groups.
The other thing that is striking about these outfits is their fly-by-night nature. Of the 43 groups active in state-level races in 2010, only 14 of them were around in 2008 and 11 were doing electioneering in state races in 2006.
The most shadowy of these groups have names that ooze grassroots authenticity and evoke images of patriotism or motherhood and apple pie. They pop up, travel the low road doing the dirtiest of the political dirty work, and then vanish, to be replaced by new groups run by the same cast of characters.
The Democracy Campaign has been tracking this political sleight of hand since it started in earnest in Wisconsin in 2000. That year, the campaign hijackers were named Americans for Job Security, Independent Citizens for Democracy, People for Wisconsin's Future and Project Vote Informed.
Independent Citizens for Democracy was anything but independent and was really just one citizen, namely Chuck Chvala, who was then Senate Democratic leader and later of course a convicted felon. Chvala's group returned under the same name to haunt Wisconsin elections one more time in 2002. Project Vote Informed morphed into the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin. They were joined by Citizens for Clean and Responsible Government, Citizens for Wisconsin's Future, the Coalition for America's Families, Coalition to Keep America Strong and Working Families of Wisconsin.
In the next election in 2004, Citizens for Wisconsin's Future stuck around for a repeat performance and was joined by All Children Matter, the Alliance for Choices in Education and Americans for a Brighter Tomorrow.
All Children Matter remained active for two more elections in 2006 and 2008. Another group that surfaced in 2004, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, continues to intervene in state elections to this day. They were accompanied in 2006 on the left by Building Wisconsin's Future, not to be confused with Building a Better Wisconsin, the campaign arm of the Wisconsin Builders Association. And there was Working Families PAC on the right, not to be confused with Working Families of Wisconsin that helped Democrats in 2002.
Joining the fray in 2008 was Advancing Wisconsin, a regional group called Keep Our North Strong, and the Wisconsin Institute for Leadership. Only Advancing Wisconsin has been heard from in Wisconsin since.
This year, All Children Matter has been reincarnated as the American Federation for Children. This group's efforts are being orchestrated by former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who is awaiting a new trial on corruption charges. It is best known for attacks leveled against Green Bay-area state senate candidate Monk Elmer, who has served on the Kimberly school board. The group lambasted Elmer and his supposed fellow board members for declaring a financial emergency and hiking taxes by exceeding state revenue limits on school budgets. The ads cite as evidence an article that appeared in a newspaper . . . in Idaho . . . about the fiscal woes in a Kimberly school district in that western state.
Other groups sponsoring campaign ads in 2010 include the American Justice Partnership, Building a Stronger Wisconsin (not to be confused with Building a Better Wisconsin or Building Wisconsin's Future), Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin, Citizens for Fox Valley Jobs, Citizens for Southwest Wisconsin, the Club for Growth, Jobs First Coalition and Northwoods Patriot Group. Two of the biggest spenders this year are the Republican State Leadership Committee, one of the few such groups with a name that gives voters a clue which side it is on, and RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC, whose initials would provide a clue if voters knew they stand for Republican Governors Association.
The reason most of these electioneering groups don't have to reveal their donors is they are gaming the tax code. This also helps explain why they come and go so quickly. Staying one step ahead of the law, don't you know.
Many of these groups are organized under section 501c of the federal tax code. Political campaigning is not a permissible primary purpose for 501c organizations under federal law. Some complaints have been filed calling on the IRS to investigate, but one wonders if the subjects of the complaints will exist anymore by the time the IRS finishes investigating and tries to enforce the law.
Trying to chase groups that spring up like weeds one moment and evaporate into thin air the next is exceedingly unlikely to get us anywhere good. Instead, Congress and states like Wisconsin should pass new disclosure laws requiring disclosure of the source of funds used for election spending regardless of how a group is organized. In the meantime, the IRS could do the public a huge favor by refusing to automatically grant 501c status to groups intending to engage in electioneering. Make them organize under section 527. Political campaigning can be the primary purpose of so-called 527s, but they have to disclose their donors.
Our elections are filthy with party fronts and shadowy interest groups that the IRS considers charitable organizations that promote the social welfare. This is a ruse. Both common sense and the public interest demand that they be required to operate as 527s and made to prove that influencing elections is not their primary purpose before being granted 501c status.
Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an independent, non-partisan political watchdog organization that monitors the impact of money on the state's elections.