Editor’s note: In the aftermath of the April 3 election, Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, testified this week before the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Campaign Finance Reform, Rural Issues and Information Technology. The text of his testimony follows.
Thank you for holding this hearing today. We just endured the ugliest Supreme Court race our state has ever seen. Not to mention the most partisan and most expensive by far. A cash-soaked, special interest-contaminated smearfest that came on the heels of a $32 million race for governor and a contest for attorney general where over $8 million was spent – five times more than ever before for that office – mostly on ads filled with half-truths and outright lies about who’s softest on sex crimes. We’ve seen what the current campaign finance system gets us. You need look no further than what we just experienced these past several weeks to see the need for reform.
When all is said and done and the final campaign reports are filed in July, spending on the Supreme Court race will top $6 million.Remarkably few voices did almost all of the talking. More than half of the spending was done by a handful of interest groups. The candidates themselves both topped the $1 million mark, a new record by a wide margin for Supreme Court candidates, yet were outspent by a long shot by the special interest groups.
Of the amount we have been able to account for so far, with two weeks of candidate fundraising and several late interest group ad buys yet to be counted, a single interest group (Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce) is responsible for more than 40 percent of all spending in the race.
Reform starts with truth in campaigning. That means full disclosure of all election-related activities. It means honoring the public’s right to know who is trying to influence the outcome of elections, who is bankrolling campaigns, how much is being spent and where the money comes from. Legislation introduced as Senate Bill 77 would close the gaping loophole in our campaign finance laws and make campaign finance disclosure requirements relevant and meaningful again.
Currently, the public is being kept in the dark about millions of dollars being spent on state campaigns. In the $6 million Supreme Court race, just over $2 million has been disclosed on campaign finance reports filed with the Elections Board. Put another way, the origins of as much as $2 out of every $3 used to influence the outcome of this election were concealed from public view.
What we are left with is a cloud that now hangs over our state’s highest court and indeed our entire state court system. Judges are supposed to be accountable only to the law and the Constitution. Because of the pathologies that were so evident in this race, the public is now left to wonder whether judges are beholden only to the law or whether they are beholden to the interest groups and party bosses that got them elected. This puts the fairness and impartiality of our courts in question, and puts the integrity of our highest court in particular at great risk.
Which leads to the second reform goal that we think you should make a priority as you fashion reform legislation. Maintaining and safeguarding impartial justice. Voters are losing faith that justice is really blind. In mid-March, two members of the freshman class in the Assembly announced their plans to do something about this by introducing legislation calling for public financing of state Supreme Court races. Such an approach already has been put in place in North Carolina and is working extremely well. Statewide campaigns for judicial offices are now being conducted for no more than a few hundred thousand dollars and judges are expressing relief that they no longer have to dial for dollars and are no longer perceived to be under the influence of campaign supporters when they rule on cases.
The third task we urge you to accomplish is the restoration of voter-owned elections for all state offices. We’ve seen what we get with donor-owned elections … when we do democracy the way the lobbyists and their special interest clients want it done. One of things you get is a public that believes their own elected representatives are more beholden to their cash constituents than their own voting constituents. The findings of two polls conducted by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute underscore this point. WPRI found that a mere 6% of state residents believe elected state officials represent them. Six percent. The vast majority of Wisconsin residents believe state lawmakers either are just looking to advance their own careers or help their special interest contributors.
Putting voters back in charge means creating a campaign finance system that gives the general public a broad financial stake in state elections and ends the heavy reliance on a small number of extremely wealthy donors. Good legislation that would establish such a system already has been introduced. Senate Bill 12 – the Ellis-Erpenbach bill – is an excellent proposal that would make a huge difference if enacted. We support SB 12. And then just yesterday, Sen. Risser and Rep. Pocan announced plans to introduce a comprehensive campaign reform plan modeled after the highly successful systems already up and running in Arizona and Maine and recently adopted in Connecticut. The Democracy Campaign appeared in support of this proposal at yesterday’s press conference, and we strongly urge your committee to seriously consider it.
As you work toward campaign reforms, you’ll hear over and over that it’s wrong to use taxpayer money for election campaigns. As if there is somehow a way to do democracy free of charge. A way for the average taxpayer to avoid paying for politics. We will always have publicly financed elections. The only question is whether we pay for the cost of democracy directly through a system of voter-owned elections, or whether we pay indirectly by footing the bill every time a major campaign donor is rewarded with a tax break or a slice of budget pork or a no-bid government contract.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s research puts the cost of the perks and favors and paybacks state lawmakers have given their campaign contributors at more than $1,300 for each and every taxpayer in the state, each and every year. Contrast that price tag with the cost of voter-owned election campaign financing systems that are up and running in states like Arizona and Maine. A couple Happy Meals per taxpayer per year.
You’ll also hear the related argument that under no circumstances should any taxpayer’s money be given to a candidate that taxpayer does not agree with. This is hogwash too … for two reasons. First, it’s happening all the time under the current system. Our taxpayers dollars are routinely going to reward donors we may find utterly repugnant for their efforts to elect people we may neither agree with nor like. Second, no taxpayer agrees with or directly benefits from all the uses our taxpayer money is put to. All of us help pay for roads we’ll never drive on or schools our children will never attend.
Perhaps more than anything else, you’ll be told that campaign reform limits free speech or is even unconstitutional. Again, hogwash. When you unpack the rhetoric of those who are using their money to do all the talking in the public arena, what they are saying is they want no part of a debate unless they can monopolize the floor. And they are saying the public has no right to pull back the curtain and see who is behind there pulling the levers. They are saying money is speech and secrecy is freedom. These notions demean and desecrate the First Amendment. They are incompatible with democracy.
Campaign reform proposals like the ones before you do not tell anyone they can’t speak, but they do require everyone to play by the same rules and they do restore authentic meaning to the First Amendment by ensuring that citizens not only have the right to speak but also the chance to be heard. Campaign reforms like those you are considering do not stop the flow of money in politics, but they do create a more level playing field so more people can afford to participate.
The recipe for reform is a proven one. States as diverse as Arizona, Maine, North Carolina and Connecticut have opted for public financing of elections. Wisconsin once had a highly successful system of public financing, until it fell victim to a toxic mixture of political sabotage and citizen neglect. Our neighbors in Minnesota put the same system in place around the same time but have done a much better job of keeping it in working order.
The ingredients are simple. Truth in campaigning, meaning full disclosure of all election related activities. Reasonable limits on campaign spending and donations, so that everyone is playing by the same rules. Public funds available to all qualified candidates so you don’t have to be independently wealthy or willing to take out a second mortgage on your soul to compete for public office.
The payoff is substantial. More voices heard. More choices for voters. More competition. Clean government. Real democracy.
Mike McCabe is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan election watchdog agency that works for clean elections real democracy. For additional information, visit www.wisdc.org.