Recipients of political contributions no longer would have to report their contributors’ employers under the most recent version of the Republican legislative leaders’ bill to overhaul state campaign finance laws.
The change was made through an amendment to the bill in a legislative committee vote last week. The bill is one of several controversial measures relating to elections, campaigns and state government that have moved through the state Assembly at a blistering pace — on track for votes in the full Assembly later this week, less than two weeks after their introduction.
The amendment scraps the requirement in the bill, which also exists in current law, that recipients of political contributions disclose the principal place of employment of their contributors. The requirement applies to contributors who give a sum contribution of more than $200 per year to a given recipient, such as a candidate’s campaign, political party or political action committee.
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Supporters of the change, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, also the Assembly sponsor of the bill, said disclosing a contributor’s occupation is more relevant than the contributor’s employer.
“Having people say what they do for a living is much more important than saying where they work,” Vos told reporters last week.
Critics say the change would make it harder to track links between political contributors and the businesses that might benefit from bills or causes promoted by the recipients of their contributions. Examples include when a business or its executives illegally funnel campaign contributions through its employees or when a business benefits from legislation pushed by a candidate that received campaign contributions from the business’ employees.
“This is a way to mask giving money and the influence that comes with it,” said Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit group that tracks money in state politics.
In 2011, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. chief executive William Gardner pleaded guilty to two felony charges relating to political contributions. Prosecutors alleged Gardner asked his employees to make tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions, including donations to Gov. Scott Walker, and then reimbursed them for it.
Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, said at a press conference Monday that eliminating the requirement that donors’ employers be disclosed “makes it impossible to investigate that sort of illegal giving.”
“Having an employer listed (on campaign finance reports) shows that pattern,” Subeck said.
Vos said the change also would shield businesses from public backlash if its employees choose to donate to a particular cause or candidate — in many cases, without input or approval from the business.
Supporters of the change point to instances in which businesses faced boycotts during the Act 10 debate because employees made contributions to Walker. The convenience store chain Kwik Trip, Johnsonville Sausage, Northwestern Mutual Insurance and M&I Bank were among those that faced boycotts.
The Vos campaign finance bill, the Senate sponsor of which is Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, would fundamentally rewrite Wisconsin’s campaign finance law. It would double limits for contributions to candidates, allow contributions of unlimited size to political parties, political action committees and legislative campaign committees — the political arms of legislative caucuses.
Other provisions in the bill would make clear that issue advocacy groups could work closely with candidates and allow corporations to make contributions of unlimited amounts to political parties and legislative campaign committees, so long as they go into segregated funds that aren’t doled out to candidates.