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Election reform done, a key loophole remains

On Nov. 5 an amazing thing happened. Both houses of the state Legislature took a stand for a nonpartisan, independent Supreme Court by passing the Impartial Justice bill.

Soon it became the Impartial Justice Act as the governor signed it into law, establishing full public financing of state Supreme Court elections.

This is the most significant campaign reform in Wisconsin in 32 years. It was 10 years in the making as the Impartial Justice bill was proposed in 1999.

Wisconsin became the only state in the nation to pass public financing legislation this year, and the third ever to approve judicial public financing, joining North Carolina and New Mexico.

Most all of the power brokers at the Capitol were sure it wouldn't happen, especially given the state of the economy and the condition of state finances. But it happened. And, not a moment too soon.

Supreme Court elections have been turned into auctions. With the bill's signing Wisconsin took an important step toward turning them back into elections.

High Court candidates will now be able to seek this office without having to raise large sums of private special interest money to do so. And along with the basic public grants they will receive to pay for campaign expenses, they will be eligible for additional "fair fight" funds if political action committees (PACs) run by interest groups make independent expenditures against them.

While that goes a long way toward cleaning up Supreme Court elections, it does not solve every problem plaguing these contests.

The Impartial Justice Act will be even more effective if state lawmakers act to close the "issue-ad loophole." Special interest groups exploit this to secretly spend unlimited amounts of money to influence all kinds of state elections.

If this loophole is closed, issue-ad groups would have to fully disclose their activity and abide by limitations on campaign contributions as candidates and registered PACs must do. And publicly financed Supreme Court candidates would receive public funds to combat these special interest attacks under the Impartial Justice Act.

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced to make this happen. Committees in both houses have approved it. This sets the stage for floor debate and final votes in the Senate and Assembly.

During the debate on the Impartial Justice bill, Senate leader Russ Decker promised that his house would take up this reform after the first of the year. Decker also issued a statement at the beginning of the year pledging action on the legislation.

The gaping loophole in Wisconsin's campaign finance regulations allowing wealthy interests to operate outside the law has become the single greatest ill in our elections. The votes are there to cure this ailment. The majority of members of both houses are on record in favor of closing the issue ad loophole.

In the coming weeks, state lawmakers need to hear from citizens about the importance of keeping their promise to deal with this problem.

Editor's Note: Writer Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money in state politics and works for clean, open and honest government. WDC's Web site is McCabe will speak to the local chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 9, in the lower level of the River Falls Public Library.