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Capitol Newsletter: Walker's shift on campaign financing
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The young legislator made it clear where he stood - the public needs to know who and which groups are financing Wisconsin elections.

"Wisconsin voters have a right to know the source of all the money being poured into the state from Washington DC and beyond," he wrote in a press release timed for the introduction of a bill to accomplish that goal.

"Our proposal would require any political group that spends money in Wisconsin to disclose where their money comes from," the press release continued. The press release was dated March 9, 1997.

The legislator was Rep. Scott Walker. He would later win three elections for governor and try to become the Republican nominee for the president of the United States.

Walker would shift policy positions on several issues during the 71 days he was an official candidate to head the national Republican ticket. Perhaps most notable were on immigration and ethanol - hot topics in nearby Iowa.

Now the governor is supporting changes in campaign finance law and who will be in charge of election operations in Wisconsin. Under Republican legislation a commission dominated by politicians would replace the panel of six retired judges who compose the Government Accountability Board (GAB). The governor would get to appoint the executive director of the commission. The Republican-controlled State Senate would get to confirm Walker's choice.

The changes would occur by mid-2016 - just in time for the fall elections.

Equally important is the Republican legislation racing toward legislative approval that open the financial spigots for campaign contributions. Unlimited money could be raised by so-called independent issue groups. As long as they don't specify for whom to vote, there is no disclosure of the sources of their funds.

Importantly the issue groups could consult and apparently coordinate activities with candidates themselves during the political campaigns. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said a goal was to "protect a free and vigorous debate" by shielding issue advocacy groups from any state regulation.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, said allowing the coordination and the unlimited and undisclosed campaign money brings about "almost the complete deregulation of campaign finance in Wisconsin.

The bill follows the line of reasoning of the State Supreme Court decision as it ended the John Doe investigation into ties between Walker's gubernatorial campaign and conservative groups.

Gerald Nichol, a former Republican district attorney who is chair of the GAB, has sharply assailed the reasoning of the State Supreme Court decision in the John Doe case. He suggested two of the four majority decision judges should have recused themselves.

"You get off the case and that protects the system. It gives it integrity, and right now I think the Supreme Court has a problem with their integrity," Nichol has said. He adds the John Doe ruling was a "very poorly written decision."

The door may not be fully shut on the case. There is speculation it may face review in the federal courts because it exceeds campaign finance decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

- Matt Pommer is a 35-year veteran of covering state government in Madison. His column is published Tuesdays in the Times.