Corporations, labor unions, tribes and other groups that pay for advertising for or against candidates for state office will have to disclose their spending this election cycle.
The Government Accountability Board said an emergency rule adopted Monday will do as much as possible under current Wisconsin law to let the public know who is trying to influence the outcome of elections.
Board staff acknowledged the rule would not require complete disclosure of the original sources of funding for political ads. That's because the groups will only have to disclose "contributions" — which are defined in state law as donations made specifically for a political purpose.
The sources of other donations don't have to be revealed, no matter how they are used. That loophole will allow corporations and unions to give trade associations and nonprofit groups money to influence elections while their roles remain hidden, said Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending.
But he said the rule went as far as the board could go under current Wisconsin law and would give the public a better idea of how much outside groups are spending. He said it would also help enforce a new law that gives Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates public money to offset spending by outside groups.
Under the rule, groups that spend money for or against candidates will have to register with the state, routinely report their spending and put "paid for by" disclaimers with their names on all ads they sponsor.
"This rule would be a significant step forward, but it's not the quantum leap forward that needs to be achieved," McCabe said.
The rule comes in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that lifted restrictions on spending by unions and corporations in elections. The board said in March the ruling meant it could no longer enforce a century-old Wisconsin law preventing corporations from spending money from their general treasuries to help or hurt candidates.
Some campaign finance reformers have predicted the ruling will unleash a flood of corporate money into this year's races for governor and the state Legislature, but other observers say they doubt that will happen.
McCabe, board members and campaign finance lawyer Mike Wittenwyler all criticized Wisconsin lawmakers for adjourning last month without taking action to respond to the ruling.
A bill that would have required corporations to receive shareholder approval to spend money on political campaigns died after failing to pass the Assembly. Other changes sought by the board to strengthen disclosure requirements weren't introduced.
Wittenwyler told board members the rule they approved "is the best you can do" without action by the Legislature. The board ordered its staff to study changes needed to respond to the ruling and make specific recommendations to lawmakers, who do not begin their next session until January.