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Proposal to centralize campaign finance reports for local elected officials stalls in Assembly

Source: Amena Saleh / Wisconsin Watch

Proposal to centralize campaign finance reports for local elected officials stalls in Assembly

Current law requires only candidates for state office to file campaign finance disclosures detailing political spending on their campaigns.

February 20, 2024 11:29 AM CDT

By: Jacob Resneck / Wisconsin Watch

A bipartisan bill would centralize all campaign finance-related filings with the state. Backers say that would reduce the burden on local clerks. Current law requires only candidates for state office — including district attorneys — to file campaign finance disclosures detailing political spending on their campaigns.

How would the law work? It would — beginning in 2025 — require campaign committees, political parties and conduits at the local level to file campaign finance reports with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, which already runs a statewide database.

Why watch? As dark money pours into campaigns at every level, it can be difficult to track outside interest groups funding local elected officials, who pass ordinances and policies that can have a more direct effect on constituents than the laws passed by state and federal officials whose campaign financing is more easily tracked. Wisconsin’s decentralized campaign finance reporting system — which requires municipal and county clerks and school districts to keep track, oftentimes still in paper files — makes it difficult for citizens, watchdog groups and journalists to access information that could be easily digitized.

Yea: Bill sponsor Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, told Wisconsin Watch that it would make things simpler for candidates and local officials alike.

“We have one-stop for people to file, and for the local clerk’s it’s a big relief, it takes a tremendous time, burden and effort off of them,” he said. 

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission would be tasked with keeping track of the filings for city council races, county supervisors and school board members, creating a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We have 1,800 different local governments in the state of Wisconsin,” he added. “Some are getting some reporting, some may not be. So a uniform standard — statewide — makes sense.”

Municipal associations like the League of Wisconsin Municipal Associations and Wisconsin Towns Association have registered support. 

Nay: There has been no registered opposition to the bill, though Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, voted against it in committee.

“This bill is a solution in search of a problem,” Smith said in a statement to Wisconsin Watch. “It seems overly burdensome for candidates who run in low spending races. They typically don’t have the professional staff to assist with campaign compliance. It also distracts our Ethics Commission from overseeing serious compliance issues in higher level races.”

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards is neutral, according to records. Passage this session is uncertain. The Assembly version is currently sitting in the Committee on Campaigns and Elections.

The bill has its limits. Under current law, statewide officeholders and many bureaucrats are required to report their outside income and investments to guard against potential conflicts of interest. But those disclosure rules are set locally with some counties requiring none at all. So even if the bill passes, members of state bodies like the Snowmobile Recreation Council would have to disclose their outside income and investments while an elected sheriff and county supervisor in a jurisdiction with no disclosure requirements would not.

State of play: The bill has already had public hearings in both chambers. The Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection on Feb. 15 advanced it for a floor vote. Its companion bill was poised this month for approval, but it has not advanced in the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections. An aide to committee chair Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, said it “looks unlikely this session” to advance to the Assembly floor.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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