2008/11/20:Wisconsin campaign finance reform enters the realm of the possible - Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Wisconsin campaign finance reform enters the realm of the possible

The Isthmus

 'It's unquestionably a better landscape for
Mike McCabe: 'It's unquestionably a better landscape for reform.'

Mike McCabe remembers what it was like to go before the old State Elections Board and push for campaign finance reform.

"They greeted us in an openly hostile fashion," recalls McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "We were treated like pond scum."

Funny how things change. The state's new Government Accountability Board, created last year, earns praise from McCabe for recently passing a rule that would force special interest groups to disclose their donors.

"It's a whole different ballgame," says McCabe. "This board is showing some spine."

McCabe also hopes the state Legislature, which for the first time in 14 years is controlled by the Democrats, will support reform. The Legislature must review the board's new disclosure rule.

"The votes are there, and they weren't always there in the past," says McCabe. "It's unquestionably a better landscape for reform."

New Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville) has pledged that campaign finance reform will be one of the Legislature's top priorities.

"That's something the former speaker [Michael Huebsch] wouldn't say," says McCabe. "In fact, he blocked reforms that would have passed if brought to a vote before the whole Assembly."

McCabe believes the Legislature could now pass laws to prohibit fundraising during budget deliberations and offer public financing for state Supreme Court races. "I think there's a good opportunity to make some of these reforms reality," he says.

Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin has a more tempered view. "On paper, it looks good," he says. "I'm always cautious, because I've been doing this for a long time. There are many stumbling blocks on the way."

Heck says reforms that don't cost the state anything — like no fundraising during the budget — are more likely to pass than those that require state money. Public financing for state judicial races could cost $2.5 million, which is a lot of money for a state facing a $5 billion deficit.

"We're going to have to be realistic and creative about where the money could come from," says Heck.

But, he warns, if the Legislature fails to act soon on some of these reforms, it may not act at all. Right now, "everyone still feels the sting of the last campaign. In the spring, when they start fundraising again and start stocking up cash for the next campaign, they forget."

All in for Obama

Two Madison women are on Public Citizen's list of top Wisconsin contributors during the presidential election — one for direct giving, one for bundling contributions from others.

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group says Mary Ellyn Sensenbrenner, wife of Madison's former Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner, gave nearly $30,000 to Barack Obama's joint fundraising committee. This is a way to skirt election laws that limit individual donations. The money does not go directly to campaigns, but is divided among state and national political parties.

Meanwhile, Mary Lang Sollinger made Public Citizen's list of top "bundlers" — people who raise small contributions, then send them bundled together to candidates. Sollinger raised at least $100,000 for Obama and recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she's now raising money for his inauguration.

No room at detox

Some people celebrated a little too hard the night Obama won. An impromptu gathering on State Street, which reportedly drew 1,000 people, also sent a few inebriated folks to Dane County's detox center.

"We [reached capacity] that night with a lot of students who were celebrating," says Dave Mack, the center's program supervisor. "It really surprised us."

The detox center, operated by Tellurian UCAN, has 29 beds. On most nights, the center hosts about 20 people, says Mack, so "an event puts you over the top."

So far this year, the center has hit capacity five times, mostly during Badger home games. But it did not fill up during Freakfest, the annual Halloween celebration on State Street, or after a recent Badger game that began at 11 a.m., which, Mack notes, "can have an effect."

UW students who end up at detox could face a meeting with UW officials and may have to take a class on alcohol abuse. Repeat offenders risk suspension.

The center has only recently begun keeping track of the number of nights it reaches capacity. "It's occurring more frequently," says Mack. "We're trying to get a handle on why."

Coming or going?

The city council's eight-hour budget meeting last week seemed like exactly the right time to start asking alders if they're running for re-election next spring.

"Yes," said Ald. Jed Sanborn, "though I change my mind five times a day."

Ald. Brenda Konkel also said yes, "but I should have my head examined." Konkel was peeved because several alders, led by Mark Clear, had blocked her attempt to ask city staff why their budgets for supplies had increased dramatically for 2009. (Human Resources, for example, got $63,232 for next year, even though it only spent $45,332 on supplies in 2007.)

"I have issues that are important to me, regardless of how I get treated by my colleagues," said Konkel.

Ald. Julia Kerr is running, too. "I have a lot of work to do," she said, declining to elaborate. She said she'd promised certain people she wouldn't divulge her plans for her south-side district.

One mystery is whether Ald. Mike Verveer will run for re-election. Verveer is still mulling his decision, but his fans are speaking up. The executive council of Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. recently sent Verveer a letter, asking him to stay.

Ledell Zellers, the group's past president and executive council member, sings Verveer's praises.

"We have a high regard for his ability to represent his district," she says. "We hope he will run again, but we support him in whatever he decides is best."

Some people think Zellers will run if Verveer does not. "I'm really hoping Mike will continue being our representative," she says. "He's good at getting things done."

Open for business

Madison's first Timebank store officially opens its doors next week, on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

"We're going to be open in time for the big holiday shopping day," says Stephanie Rearick, Dane County's Timebank director.

The store is located in the heart of the Allied Drive neighborhood. Members can use Timebank dollars, earned by volunteering at nonprofits or providing other services, to buy clothing, toys and other items at the store. About 20 Allied residents are pitching in to run it.

Rearick says the store is still looking for donations to help stock its shelves. "Things people could give as gifts could be good," says Rearick. "We also want to make sure we have a steady supply of cleaning supplies, school supplies and household items."

The store will be open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Wednesdays from 1 to 6 p.m. Rearick hopes Timebank members from all over the city will shop there; the goal is to "eventually have stores in other neighborhoods."