Eye on the Capitol|
Public good demands instant reporting of campaign gifts
Lobbyists must live with tight rules. Our legislators should be doing the same
By John Huebscher
Registered lobbyists are expected to notify the State Ethics
Board of their intent to influence a piece of legislation or an
administrative regulation within 15 days of their first lobbying
Consequently, in this electronic age, the law enables any citizen
with a computer to know which interest groups are active on any
issue before the Legislature simply by contacting the Ethics
Board's web page. While the reporting can be an inconvenience, it
is by no means onerous and, for the most part, lobbyists live
with it easily.
Now, it seems we are ready for the next step in public
accountability in our law making process - requiring "instant
reporting" of campaign contributions.
This season of final decision making on the budget is busy for
legislators. But they are not the only ones putting in overtime.
Campaign donors are also active.
How active? Let's look back two years when the last budget was
enacted into law.
In 1999, nearly $100,000 a month was donated to legislative
campaign coffers in March, April, May and June. Then, in August
and September and October, when the budget conference committee
made hundreds of decisions, following mostly behind-the-scenes
bargaining, the donors became even more generous. Campaign chests
grew by $122,000 in August, $125,000 in September and another
$187,000 in October. However, since campaign committees only
report their donations twice a year (July and January), these
donations, which totaled over $430,000 during key budget
discussions, did not become a public record until January 2000.
The Elections Board is supposed to develop a system for accepting
electronic campaign reports but has yet to do so. This delay is
unfortunate and a lost opportunity for making politics more
Based on the experience of the lobby law, those responsible for
maintaining financial reports for candidates and campaign
committees should be able to report electronically to the
Elections Board any campaign donations over $100 within two to
There is also no reason why any citizen interested in the
political process should not be able to examine the donor reports
via the Internet once they are filed.
Citizens could discern whether donations to a campaign committee
of an individual legislator or to a caucus campaign committee
occurred within days of an action on a budget issue. Citizens
could then draw their own conclusions as to any linkage between
campaign donations and budget decisions.
Our lawmakers routinely assure us that decisions regarding
legislation and budget items are made "on the merits" with no
thought to who has contributed to them or their opponents. They
deserve to be taken at their word.
Still, it seems that a citizen's legitimate interest in knowing
who is donating to campaigns during the budget season is well
served by asking candidates and campaign committees to live with
the same reporting requirements and attendant scrutiny as do
(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic
Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)