By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Some Wisconsin residents are still reeling from this summer’s recall elections, in which spending on nine state Senate races was estimated at $44 million, or about $57 per vote. But, as a wise man once said, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The campaign to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker is about to begin, and a little-known quirk in the state’s campaign finance law that played a minor role in the recent recalls could play a major role here.
Normal individual contribution limits, set at $10,000 for a gubernatorial race, are suspended from the time a recall drive is launched until … well, that’s a good question.
The law says donations in excess of usual limits are allowed until “a recall primary or election is ordered, or after that time if incurred in contesting or defending the order.”
If the recall is launched as planned on Nov. 15, petitions will be due by Jan. 17. Then these must then be reviewed by the state Government Accountability Board, which will take at least 30 days, says Jonathan Becker, the agency’s ethics division administrator.
During this time, individuals can give usually forbidden amounts, from $10,001 to $10 million or more, to Walker or any challengers. Amounts above usual limits can be used “for the purpose of payment of legal fees and other expenses incurred in connection with the circulation … of a petition to recall an officer.”
What does that mean? Good question.
According to Becker, it “absolutely” could go for political ads, depending on their content. An ad that urged citizens not to sign recall petitions would probably qualify, he says, while one that directly urged people to vote for a candidate probably would not.
And this spending could continue well beyond when a recall election is authorized, if there are ongoing legal challenges. Becker thinks there would be “a narrower permitted use” of these funds once a recall is ordered, but the matter is open to interpretation.
This summer, several recall targets received substantial individual donations above the normal $1,000 limit for state Senate campaigns. This money was used for expenses including consulting fees, radio ads, mailings, lodging and fundraisers, according to filed reports.
Losing candidate Randy Hopper, R-Empire, reported 12 such donations totaling $73,250, or $61,250 above what would normally be allowed. This extra cash accounts for 16.6 percent of his total receipts for 2011. He itemized $94,116 in recall-related expenses.
Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, who also lost, had 40 donors who gave a total of $77,086 above the usual limit, or 6.5 percent of what he raised for the year. He listed more than $100,000 in recall-related expenses.
The largest recipient was Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who reported 61 contributions that exceeded usual limits by a total of $201,650, or 15.3 percent of her 2011 total. She listed $187,104 in allowable spending.
There is no requirement under the law, says Becker, that recall-related expenses be itemized. He says the GAB does “not have enough information to know for sure” that the money received in excess of legal limits was appropriately spent, although a staff review is under way.
The bid to recall Walker, like the Senate recalls, will likely be dominated by issue ads and mailings from outside groups that provide minimal disclosure and abide by few limits. But hard cash given directly to campaigns remains important, especially for those who seek to curry favor with candidates.
Since mid-2008, Walker has snared more than $12 million from individuals, including several dozen maximum $10,000 contributions, according to the GAB.
Asked for its take on the use of donations above usual limits, Walker’s campaign deferred to the Republican Party of Wisconsin, where spokeswoman Nicole Larson said, “At this time, we have no comment.”
Will Walker and his Democratic rivals abide by narrow limits or apply an elastic interpretation to maximize how much they can spend?
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.