Sunlight and secrecy in the Upper Midwest

Two merged highway roads with stop signs, one in black and white and one in color
Image Credit: Flickr user theilr

State neighbors Minnesota and Wisconsin have many deep similarities, from common territorial origins and common ethnic heritage to a shared early 20th-century radical farmers’ movement. The states used to be closer politically as well, with both states having experienced a run of divided government in recent years. However, with the 2010 elections producing state governments with strongly divergent policy preferences. Minnesota and Wisconsin transformed their political similarity into some fairly striking policy differences.

The states now differ substantially on a variety of policies. In the realm of access to health care, Wisconsin has increased restrictions to reduce the number of residents eligible for Medicaid while Minnesota used the Affordable Care Act to expand its Medicaid pool. In the realm of voting rights, while the Minnesota government authorized an online voter registration system to increase Minnesotans’ access to the ballot box, Wisconsin’s government passed a voter ID law — struck down by both state and federal judges — that the ACLU and other voting rights advocates argued placed a serious burden on Wisconsin voters.

Fittingly for two states whose gubernatorial races were among the top targets for independent spending in 2010, their policy differences also play out in the realm of campaign finance policy.

First, the good news.

In Minnesota, a legislative compromise around raising campaign donation limits will result in inceased access to local campaign finance disclosure. The bill in question, SF 2782, includes both an increase in local campaign contribution limits and new requirements that “all reports required to be filed with the local government under this section [shall be] available on the local government’s Web site, if the local government maintains a Web site.” The bill’s language includes a 30-day time limit by which municipalities must post reports they receive and a requirement that the reports be available on the site for four years. We would ideally like to see even faster posting and longer online record retention, but we nonetheless applaud the state’s government for achieving a landmark campaign transparency — and open data — achievement. In passing SF 2782, Minnesota becomes the first state to require that all municipalities maintaining websites post local campaign finance disclosure, dramatically increasing the local availability of data about campaign contributions across the state.

Minnesota’s government is still contemplating an even greater advance in campaign finance disclosure. Inspired to action by recent Supreme Court decisions which legitimize “independent expenditure” campaign contributions from nonprofits and others, legislators developed a bill, SF 2099, that would require all organizations making independent campaign expenditures to disclose their donors. These provisions would place nonprofit and corporate spending on a more even playing field in terms of disclosure requirements with other organizations currently making political expenditures. As this bill would have serious consequences for organizations that presently use their nonprofit status as a way to avoid disclosing their donors, this bill has received substantially more political pushback and its passage is in doubt.

And now for some of the sad news, from the other side of the St. Croix.

Wisconsin has tangled with both sides of campaign finance in the past. It has both been lauded for mandating good practices in campaign finance disclosure, but reports also indicate a history of inadequate enforcement. However, in early May the state made national news for a federal judge’s radical effort to prevent the enforcement of existing campaign finance regulation, potentially ending the possibility of states’ limiting campaign donations in any way.

In his recent ruling in O’Keefe and Wisconsin Club for Growth v. Schmitz et al., U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa aimed to nullify existing campaign finance law that require independent expenditures to be made without candidate coordination. Rather than permit the state of Wisconsin to investigate and document improper coordination, Randa instead applauded the parties being investigated for violating the law, writing that “The plaintiffs have found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws, and that circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted.” He then ordered the evidence from the investigation destroyed, an event that was delayed by a stay from 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

There is little evidence that Randa was acting out of a interpretation of the case that was widely shared within Wisconsin. Allofthe major Wisconsin newspapers issued editorials opposing the decision, local peers in the legal community were taken aback, and a local political scientist asked for a reaction by Milwaukee reporters was left essentially speechless. The case is being appealed and so we await the next chapter in this story with great interest.

Even if successfully appealed, Randa’s decision — and the existence of loudpublicvoices supporting his argument that campaign finance law is unconstitutional — serves as important evidence of the strong forces working against our right to know who is paying for campaign advertisements.

On campaign finance as in so many other things, two seemingly similar states are on two distinctly different paths. It’s hard not to see in this Upper Midwestern divergence on policy a microcosmic example of campaign finance politics in the country as a whole.

And if that’s the case, which of those paths are we on: the one that leads towards increased sunlight, or increased secrecy?