Story updated 2:15 p.m. July 1 to reflect Walker spokesman declining comment, Sen. Glenn Grothman comments.
Kevin Kennedy, asked what’s happened to public financing of elections in Wisconsin, sums it up succinctly: “It’s all gone.”And Kennedy, executive director of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, played a role in its elimination.
What happened, he explains, is that Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his biennial budget to change how the state’s public financing system is funded. But the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, after hearing from Kennedy that this would create a purely token program, decided to do away with it entirely.
The change, which became official when Walker signed the budget on June 26, effectively ends the state’s 33-year-old system of providing public funding to candidates who agree to abide by overall spending limits.
“There’s no longer any mechanism in the statute for a candidate to get public financing,” says Kennedy, the top overseer of the state’s elections.
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonprofit watchdog group, says there was not much value left in the state’s underfunded program. Still, he calls it “pretty shocking and amazing that Wisconsin was one of the first states in the nation to institute a public financing system and now we have become the first state that I know of to eliminate public financing.”
Currently, Wisconsin taxpayers are asked on the state’s income tax forms whether to designate $3 to the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund and Democracy Trust Fund. This amount, increased from $1 to cover Supreme Court races, does not decrease the amount of their tax refund or increase their tax obligation.
Walker proposed making contributions to public financing an “add-on” donation, similar to nine others now on the state’s forms. These include donations for endangered resources, a Packers football stadium, a Veterans Trust Fund and prostate cancer research. Here any donation decreases the taxpayers’ refund or increases the amount owed.
Kennedy says the change, consistent with the view that those who support public financing should foot the bill, would have “significantly reduced the amount of money coming in” to fund public financing.
“We were taking in maybe $200,000 a year from the checkoff,” says Kennedy. But he estimates, based on the performance of other funds listed on the tax forms, as well as the experience of other states, this amount would have dropped to between $10,000 and $30,000.
Kennedy, in his prepared remarks to the Joint Finance Committee March 30, opposed the tax form change, saying it would reduce the state’s public financing system to “an unfunded mechanism for delivering nominal amounts of campaign funds with significant administrative costs.”
Rather than maintain this token program, Kennedy suggested the state redirect the more than $900,000 in the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund to pay for the costs of implementing the state’s new Voter ID law.
A majority of the committee, in response, axed all financing for the campaign fund and the Democracy Trust Fund, which provided money to state Supreme Court candidates. And, says Kennedy, it “also got rid of all the references in the statute to the funding mechanism.”
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie declined an opportunity to comment. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, a member of the committee who voted for the change, explains, “the state doesn’t have a lot of money and I don’t know anyone who wants to spend money on such a silly thing.”
As for why the statutory language was removed, Grothman says, “If you’re not going to have the money, the language is just cluttering up the statutes.” In the future “If we ever have money lying around, I would rather use it to cut taxes than spend it on political ads.”
The judicial fund was in place for only one election, this spring, when Supreme Court contenders received grants of $100,000 for the primary and $300,000 for the general election.
Wisconsin’s system, adopted in 1978, was “one of the first and best public campaign financing laws in the nation,” according to the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies. But in 1986 the Legislature nixed a provision that tied grant amounts to inflation, reducing the available funds and the size of the grants. Participation in the voluntary check-off also has steadily declined.
“Public financing has been a shell since really the mid-1980s,” says Heck. “Now it’s not even a shell of what it once was. It’s gone.”
Heck notes that few candidates for public office in Wisconsin accept public financing — and the spending limits that go along with it — because the grant amounts are so low and the cost of modern elections so high.
In 2010, according to records provided by Kennedy, the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund allocated $315,127 to candidates for statewide or legislative office. For example, grants to the 24 funded Assembly candidates ranged from $13 to $7,763, the maximum for those races.
“Public financing in Wisconsin died a slow, painful and some would say deserved death, because it was never improved,” says Heck. “But this does give us the opportunity to start over and create a system that is in tune with the type of campaigns that are being run today.”