The Larson Report

Progressive Perspectives from State Senator Chris Larson


Dear neighbor,

I hope you had a safe and healthy summer! Can you believe how quickly the summer has flown by? So what’s new since my last update? A lot, including the budget getting passed, the Bucks winning the NBA Championship, my colleagues and I introducing the Campaign Integrity package, and unfortunately another surge of COVID-19. 

What isn’t new is our neighbors’ increasing frustration with big money in politics and billionaires using their wealth to circumvent the democratic process. It is abundantly clear that there is far too much money by a small group of people who exert far too much influence over our politics. Democracy is not a luxury item that should go to the highest bidder.  

In this issue of the Larson Report, I will be breaking down what we must do in order to reverse the damage done by Legislative Republicans who have gutted our campaign finance protections over the years. Please let me know what you think. 

 

In service, 

Chris

 

How did we get here? Busting open the flood gates of money. 

Our current campaign finance laws allow billionaires and mega-corporations to have a greater and more protected voice than we do in our democracy. This is the result of two very consequential U.S. Supreme Court cases combined with an erosion of our own state’s campaign finance laws under former Governor Walker’s administration. The 1976 Supreme Court decision of Buckley v. Valeo placed a central obstacle in the campaign finance reform road by suddenly equating money with speech. One of the pillars of our democracy has been the freedom of speech, but this decision over-amplifies the speech of those with the most money while diminishing everyone else’s voice. Winning an argument with a megaphone is easy when your opponent does not have one. The decision was a mutation of the principle that each American has equal freedom of speech. It prohibited governments from imposing spending limits on candidates and gave corporations the same rights and privileges as people. However, they also ruled that all expenditures placed in cooperation with a candidate are contributions subject to limits. This mixed ruling led to several other campaign finance rulings, such as Citizens United in 2010. 

The 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC opened a massive political mudslide by blowing open the flood gates holding back special interest money. It did not take long for this cataclysm of corruption to hit our state. This Supreme Court case reversed century-old campaign finance restrictions and gave wealthy donors the ability to spend unlimited money on elections. While the Citizens United decision upheld Buckley v. Valeo as a means of protecting the integrity of our electoral process, Wisconsin state law currently does not reflect this ruling in preventing candidates and groups from dodging contribution limits through open coordination. 

This corruption started back in the 2015-2016 legislative session when Republican legislators (who hold their majority largely due to gerrymandering) used their ill-gotten power to unilaterally gut Wisconsin’s campaign finance safeguards by eliminating contribution restrictions, reporting requirements, and permitting secret coordination. Governor Walker then quickly signed 2015 Act 117. This new law threw out the rule book when it came to donations and coordination, and effectively served as a “get out of jail free card” for Walker who violated the law by failing to provide employer information for 5,906 of his donors. It also lightened pressure on him for his likely illegal coordination during the 2012 recall election. By signing this into law, Wisconsin became the only state in the nation where coordination between candidates and dark money groups is now legal. This law also doubled the amount of money an individual could give a candidate from $10,000 to $20,000 for a statewide race, eliminated the requirement for donors to disclose their employers when giving over $100, and allowed unlimited campaign donations from corporations and individuals to a political party or candidates committee for the first time in our state’s history. 

Campaign accountability, integrity, and transparency, once hallmarks of our state’s elections, were eliminated with his signature on these bills. 

The numbers tell the story. From 2010 to 2014, only 16.77% of campaign contributions came from PACs. From 2016 to 2020, this amount had risen 57.81%. This is a shift of millions of special interest dollars loudly changing what we see and hear about candidates and their campaigns.

Rebalancing Our Politics: Halting the flow of corporate cash 

I remain committed to ending the corrosive influence that money has on our politics and politicians. In order to stop this mudslide of money before it suffocates our democracy, my legislative colleagues and I worked with good government groups like Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to reintroduce the “Campaign Integrity Package” to ensure that Wisconsin campaigns are accountable, have integrity, and are transparent to the public. These seven bills reflect some of the most egregious problems with our campaign finance laws such as PAC contributions limits, dark money groups, and the segregated fund shell game. Each session that we have introduced critically needed reforms like these we have reached out early to Republican legislators who are in the majority in the hopes that we will have bipartisan support. So far, every Republican legislator has chosen donors over democracy and not supported reform. Below is the list of this session's proposals. We hope that this session they will enjoy bipartisan support and can pass.

 

“Campaign Contribution Limits Act”: (LRB 4220) This proposal restores sensible campaign contribution limits. This proposal would limit contributions to PACs, legislative campaign committees, and political parties to no more than $10,000, with the exception of a candidate contributing his or her personal funds to his or her own candidate committee. It would also prohibit political parties and legislative campaign committees from establishing a segregated fund to use for general purposes, eliminating the segregated fund shell game that has allowed these groups to avoid donation limits. And further, it would also decrease the individual and candidate committee contribution limit from $20,000 to $10,000 for statewide candidates, and reduce the donation limits on political action committee contributions to candidates by half. 

“Closing the PAC Loophole Act”: (LRB 4221) This proposal closes a loophole in the legal definition of a PAC that groups use to bypass donation limits. Currently, a political action committee is defined as a person, other than an individual, that either has express advocacy as its major purpose or spends more than 50 percent of its total spending in a 12-month period on expenditures that are made to support or defeat a referendum or contributions made to a candidate committee, legislative campaign committee, or political party. This proposal defines a political action committee, for campaign finance purposes, as a committee that includes a person, other than an individual, that spends more than $1,000 in a 12-month period on expenditures for express advocacy or any other aforementioned purposes. 

“Coordination Control Act”: (LRB 4222)This proposal places the same financial limits on coordinated expenditures between candidates and groups as are currently in place for direct contributions. Allowing unchecked coordinated campaign expenditures circumvents campaign donation limits, invites corruption, as well as fosters immense special interest influence. 

“No Corporate Campaign Bribes Act”: (LRB 4223) This proposal amends Wisconsin State Statutes to prohibit a corporation, cooperative association, labor organization, or federally recognized American Indian Tribe from making contributions to segregated funds established and administered by a political party or legislative campaign committee. This closes the segregated fund shell game loophole used to funnel additional money to committees. 

“Contribution Sunshine Act”: (LRB 4224) This proposal requires any committee that receives campaign finance contributions of more than $100 cumulatively from an individual to report that individual’s place of employment and occupation, if any. Current Wisconsin law does not require the disclosure of any donor’s place of employment; furthermore, current law only requires the reporting of the donor’s occupation at the $200 and up level.

“Communications Transparency Act”: (LRB 4225) This proposal requires reporting of mass communications and communication coordination within 48 hours of the mass communications, provided the disbursement for the mass communications exceeds $500 and the mass communications are made within 60 days of a primary or election. This proposal also provides a definition for mass communication related to campaigns and requires so-called “dark money” groups to disclose the names of their donors who have given $100 or more in the preceding 12 months. 

“Citizens United Fix”: (LRB 4226) This resolution places a question on the November 2022 ballot to ask the people if Congress should propose an amendment to overturn Citizens United v. F.E.C.


These proposals will be assigned bill numbers shortly so watch for updates on my Facebook and Twitter pages with direct links to the bills. I encourage you to contact your state legislators and tell them to get money out of our politics and support the Campaign Integrity Package. If you are unsure who represents you in the legislature, click here and enter your address in the top right.

By working together, we can reclaim our democracy from corporations, special interest groups, and the wealthy. Make your voice heard while you still can!

In case you missed it

2020 Census Data and Redistricting 

On August 12, Census data needed to draw new maps were released. Here are some quick takeaways from the new data: 

  • Wisconsin’s overall population grew by 4%
  • Wisconsin’s white population dropped by 3.4%
  • The Hispanic population grew by 33.1%, and the Black population grew by 4.8% 
  • Our urban areas are becoming increasingly more diverse
  • Milwaukee County lost around 1% of its population 

There have already been lawsuits filed on the redistricting process. Republican legislators have also hired taxpayer-funded attorneys to work in secret for them to make rigged maps. How maps are drawn impacts education, resource distribution, and how your interests are represented. When maps are drawn with the public input, we protect the interests of our communities, not politicians. We cannot allow our state to have some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation for another 10 years. 

Back in April, I hosted a Fair Maps Town Hall with UW-Milwaukee Professor Matt Petering where we discussed how we can ensure that our state’s maps are as fair as possible. You can watch the Town Hall here

It is critical that we all engage in the map-drawing process. You can submit your own map using this website: https://portal.wisconsin-mapping.org 

Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal

On August 10, the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure deal. Clearing this massive hurdle still leaves the House to pass it, but it is a big step closer to being done. Congress returned to Washington D.C. this week where they voted to advance the infrastructure bill. This vote puts the bill on a path to final passage in the House, which includes a nonbinding commitment to a final vote by September 27. This once-in-a-generation investment in our nation will create good-paying jobs, build better roads and bridges, create clean water, and deliver high-speed internet to our communities. This infrastructure deal will bring huge, much-need investments to our state such as: 

  • $5.2 billion for federal-aid highway programs
  • $225 million for bridge replacement and repairs 
  • $595 million for improving public transportation options
  • $79 million for expanding EV charging networks
  • $100 million for providing broadband access to at least 318,000 of our neighbors

For years our state’s infrastructure has suffered from a systemic lack of investment. I am hopeful that this bill will make life better for our neighbors and improve our state’s economy.

COVID Cases on the Rise Again Due to the Delta Variant

Our state’s COVID-19 cases are averaging above 1,200 new cases per day due to the Delta variant, and it’s more important than ever to protect ourselves. Here are some things you should know about the Delta variant: 

  1. The Delta variant is more contagious than other strains of COVID. Contrary to other strains which the average person would spread to 2.5 other people, the Delta variant infects 3.5 to 4 people on average. 
  2. Unvaccinated people are at the greatest risk. Our state is currently 53% fully vaccinated, so there is still plenty of room for the Delta variant to run rampant. Please do your part to take care of yourself and our neighbors by getting vaccinated.
  3. Breakthrough cases for fully vaccinated people are rare, but can still happen. If a fully vaccinated person catches the Delta variant, they will most likely have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Less than 1% of vaccinated people reported breakthrough cases but this number is likely underreporting the problem because most infections are asymptomatic and people aren’t tested. 
  4. The symptoms of the Delta variant are relatively the same as other strains. However, many physicians report people getting sicker more quickly, especially young people. The Delta variant also spreads more rapidly in the respiratory tract.
  5. Fully vaccinated people who catch the Delta variant breakthrough infection can spread the virus to others, but they are infectious for a shorter period. To prevent the spread, we must use all the prevention strategies available. That includes wearing a mask in indoor public places and crowded outdoor spaces.

Thank you for doing your part to keep our community safe, especially at a time when children under 12 are still not eligible to be vaccinated. 

Covid Exposure at Senate Education Hearing

Thank you to those who expressed their concern for me and my staff after we were exposed to COVID by a maskless, anti-vaccine legislator at a Joint Education committee hearing on Wednesday, August 11th. It was frustrating to learn of this potential exposure in a newspaper article rather than through the legislator or committee chairpersons, who were aware of the infection days earlier. While I hope that he makes a full recovery and that his family is healthy, I hope that he can see how reckless and selfish his behavior was. The legislature has a Human Resources department that is working with those who fit the CDC definition of close contact in the hopes that any spread is mitigated. It was a closed room with a lot of unmasked people and I have called upon the Republican chairs of the Education committees to alert those who attended the hearing of the possible exposure. The Committee Chairs have declined to take any additional safeguards. Science-based medical responses should not be blocked by partisan fantasies. 

My staff and I were wearing masks, kept our distance, and were not considered to be in close contact with him. I have since tested negative twice. 

This COVID scare highlights the importance of getting vaccinated. To incentivize getting vaccinated, this week, Governor Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced that Wisconsin residents who receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from a Wisconsin provider between August 20 and September 6 can receive a $100 Visa gift card. You can collect your $100 by filling out the form available at 100.wisconsin.gov.

For more information on where you can get vaccinated, click here.

You can view our state’s most updated information on COVID-19 here.


As always, thank you for taking the time to read this newsletter and become informed on how we can make our campaigns and elections more democratic and fair. It is an honor to serve you in the state Senate, and I promise to keep fighting for the campaign transparency and accountability our neighbors deserve.

 

In service,

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 MADISON OFFICE: 20 South, State Capitol
PHONE: (608) 266-7505
FAX: (608) 282-3547
EMAIL: Sen.Larson@legis.wisconsin.gov
U.S. MAIL: P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882
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