Back in May, Jay Heck was feeling hopeful about the prospects for major reform in how money influences elections in Wisconsin.
"On paper, it really looks a lot better than it has in the past," Heck, the executive director for Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said at the time.
Heck was encouraged in January when the state Senate and Assembly agreed to revamp the state's ethics and election oversight, after the governor called for a special legislative session.
Then the state Senate passed SB-77, a bill based on the federal McCain-Feingold legislation, to keep interest groups from using unregulated funds to run "issue advocacy" ads that attack a specific candidate within 60 days of an election.
Most importantly, say Heck and fellow reformer Mike McCabe of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the governor's office promised to hold another special legislative session in the fall to push through more reforms.
But now, Heck says, "I'm a lot less optimistic about these reforms."
The first blow came in June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the McCain-Feingold legislation that regulates federal campaign financing.
In Wisconsin Right to Life vs. Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court found that regulating advocacy ads that mention a candidate's name in the 60 days before an election was arbitrary and unconstitutional.
Since Wisconsin's SB-77 uses language similar to the McCain-Feingold bill, it will have to reworded and voted on again to pass constitutional muster.
Next, four months of squabbling over the state budget pushed campaign finance reform bills including SB-77 and the more extensive SB-12 to the back burner. While SB-77 deals specifically with issue ads, SB-12 would establish public financing for candidates who abide by voluntary spending limits of $4 million in governor's races, $150,000 in state Senate races and $75,000 in Assembly races.
SB-12 would also ban fundraising during the budget process.
According to McCabe, state politicians raised at least $2 million at more than 100 events during the budget cycle, courting donations from interest groups while slipping specific spending requests into the budget.
"The legislators used the budget as a fundraising tool," says McCabe, adding that there were more fundraisers than budget negotiating sessions.
But the biggest setback occurred in late October when a spokesman for Gov. Jim Doyle denied that the governor had ever promised to hold a special legislative session to push through campaign finance reform.
"I feel like we were double-crossed," says Heck.
In November 2006, after Doyle's decisive electoral victory, his chief of staff, Susan Goodwin, met separately with Heck and McCabe to discuss ethics reform and campaign finance reform. Both say she made an unsolicited promise that Doyle would hold a special session in the fall, after the budget was done.
According to Heck, the meeting's message was "call off the dogs on campaign finance reform, because we will deal with it in the fall after the ethics bill and budget have passed."
But after lawmakers reached a budget agreement, Heck received a phone call from Goodwin saying the special session was not going to happen. Doyle spokesman Matt Canter later claimed that Heck's and McCabe's impressions of the November 2006 meetings were "incorrect."
McCabe thinks the governor may have needed to call off the special session to reach a compromise on some part of the budget. "Maybe campaign finance reform was a casualty of the budget process," he says.
But both McCabe and Heck also speculate that the Doyle plans to seek a third term and doesn't want to change the rules of the game in which he's raised more than $16 million during two gubernatorial campaigns.
Doyle has said he intends to introduce a package of reforms in the near future. This would likely include a ban on fundraising while the state budget is in play, complete public financing for Supreme Court races, and a beefed-up system of public financing for other races.
But reform advocates continue to push for a special session, saying that unless action is taken soon reforms will not be in place for the 2008 elections. That means, says Heck, that Wisconsinites will be subjected to the same nasty "issues ads" that have plagued recent campaigns.
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), who helped pen SB-12, says he's "still holding out hope that there is time to get things done." But Erpenbach understands Heck's frustration. "We [legislators] all talk about campaign finance reform, but we never seem to do anything about it. I can see why there's some cynicism."
At first glance, there appears to be broad bipartisan support for campaign finance reform. The bill regulating disclosure of "issue ads" passed the Senate by a 27-6 margin, with the support of every Democrat and a majority of the chamber's 13 Republicans.
The more comprehensive SB-12 also appears to have significant bipartisan support. But that does not mean these bills will become law anytime soon.
It is up to the Assembly Speaker, Rep. Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem), to schedule a vote on these bills. Huebsch supported the ethics reform package in January and is much more open to reform than his predecessor, John Gard. But Huebsch has no imminent plan to schedule a vote on any campaign finance reform bills, according to his spokesman, John Murray.
Heck believes that if the "issue ad" bill were scheduled for a vote, it would "absolutely" pass. "Unfortunately in Wisconsin," says Heck, "we put so much power in the hands of a couple of people to decide the fate of this kind of legislation."
Furthermore, there's some question whether the Democrats' new Senate majority leader, Russ Decker (D-Weston), is serious about campaign finance reform. Decker is a one-time close colleague of state Sen. Chuck Chvala, imprisoned for felony misconduct charges. Decker spokeswoman Carrie Lynch was unaware of the constitutional problems with SB-77 and says Sen. Decker would wait to see what happens to SB-12 in committee before he decides to schedule a vote.
"Sen. Decker supports campaign finance reform," says Lynch, "but he also respects the [committee] chairman's right to move bills through committee first."
SB-12 is now before the Campaign Finance Reform, Rural Issues and Information Technology Committee. The chair, Sen. Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls), does not plan to hold a public hearing on the bill until next year.