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Court tosses Wisconsin limit on PAC donations (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal appeals court ruling could lead to even more spending in Wisconsin’s recall elections.

A 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled Monday that the state’s $10,000 annual contribution limit on so-called “super PACs,” or political action committees that do not coordinate with specific candidates or their campaigns, can’t be enforced while a lawsuit from one of the groups is pending.

The lawsuit was brought by Wisconsin Right to Life’s political action committee, and the group’s attorney said it will immediately begin soliciting big-dollar donations to spend in the recalls targeting six Republicans and two Democrats.

“They will raise money in excess of the limits,” said Right to Life attorney James Bopp, Jr.

To date, Wisconsin Right to Life’s PAC reported spending only $325 on telephone calls in support of Republican Sen. Randy Hopper and against his Democratic challenger, Jessica King.

The appeals court said the donation limit can be exceeded while the underlying lawsuit is pending. Wisconsin Right to Life argues that the limits are an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

Oral arguments were tentatively planned for September, after both the Aug. 9 elections targeting six Republican state senators and elections a week later involving two Democratic incumbents.

The three-judge panel noted in its decision that Wisconsin Right to Life was reasonably likely to win the case and not immediately lifting the cap would irreparably harm the group. It also noted that three other federal courts have said campaign contribution limits are illegal when applied to independent spending for political speech.

A spokesman for the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in Wisconsin and was defending the limits in court, had no immediate comment.

The recall elections are attracting big spending on both sides as they are seen as a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s conservative agenda, a chance for labor unions to fight back after the Legislature took away many of their bargaining rights, and a testing ground for campaign themes in the 2012 presidential race.

More than 50 independent groups have already filed with the state to spend money on the races. Government watchdog groups say spending could top $30 million collectively.

Since many of the big spenders are not organized as PACs, and therefore not subject to the state campaign contribution limit, the effect of the ruling may be marginal, said Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign which tracks political donations and spending. The elections are already saturated with money and all this decision will do is “give it another dose of steroids,” McCabe said.

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