- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - An overhaul of the Wisconsin law governing how much money can be raised and spent on political campaigns, and what information the public is able to find out about that activity, is long overdue, state lawmakers were told by regulators and interested parties Tuesday.

The highly complex law, which was created in the post-Watergate era of the mid-1970s, has been at the heart of an investigation into whether conservative groups illegally coordinated with Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign in 2012.

Reworking the law, known as Chapter 11, is a priority for Republicans who control the Legislature and who have been critical of the investigation into Walker and his conservative allies. Updating the law is also endorsed by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which oversees state elections and enforces campaign finance laws.

“Chapter 11 is a confusing mess that anybody who picks it up can’t figure out what’s going on,” said Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison attorney who represents third party groups that spend money on lobbying or other political activity both in Wisconsin and across the country.

The law was created in 1974 as a way to reduce the influence of money in politics. It has been the target of legal challenges ever since, and in recent years major portions of it have been struck down as unconstitutional.

Those rulings, as well as Republican anger over the Walker-related investigation, have made the issue a priority for the GOP’s legislative leadership this session. Senate and Assembly committees that deal with campaign finance issues joined together for Tuesday’s informational hearing. A bill overhauling the law has yet to be introduced.

The Legislature is looking at everything from clarifying the coordination restrictions at the heart of the Walker-related investigation, increasing the level of campaign contributions that must be reported and determining what type of fundraising and spending should be subject to disclosure.

“We have no agenda,” said Republican Sen. Devin LeMahieu, chairman of the Senate committee studying the issue in response to a question from a Democrat about whether they intended to weaken disclosure requirements. “I have no agenda.”

The Legislature should be focused on strengthening the law, not limiting its focus and deregulating requirements related to campaign spending and fundraising, said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause of Wisconsin.

“Robust campaign finance laws are needed to deter corruption or the appearance of corruption,” Heck said.

Wisconsin’s law has grown all the more confusing, and the subject of the planned overhaul, in the wake of recent court rulings resulting in major portions of the law not being enforced. The most well-known ruling, the 2010 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court’s in the Citizens United case, allowed unlimited corporate and union donations for independent political activity.

A subsequent federal court ruling in Wisconsin effectively eliminated limits on how much individuals can contribute to political parties and other non-candidate campaign committees. Another federal court ruling in February limited what campaign finance laws can be enforced.

That ruling, in a case brought by Wisconsin Right to Life, said prosecutors and state regulators can only enforce certain campaign finance laws covering so-called express advocacy. That is when groups tell people who to vote for or against, typically in television ads.

Government Accountability Board director Kevin Kennedy, who walked through the rulings for lawmakers and the affect they had on the law, said a rework is “long overdue” and called the current state of the law “wholly inadequate to the times.”

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP


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