The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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August 10, 2001 Issue
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 contact.

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 accountable.

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 three weeks.

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 lobbyists.

(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)

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