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Ruling loosens limits on some campaign donations (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state elections board on Wednesday loosened restrictions on campaign contributions to allow lobbyists in Wisconsin to pass along donations from political action committees and others to state lawmakers at any point during the year.

That interpretation by the Government Accountability Board was supported by Republican legislative leaders, lobbyists and attorneys for the Legislature.

The board voted unanimously to interpret a law that the Legislature passed in March as removing any such time restrictions on lobbyists. The law was intended to leave some limits in place, but it was ambiguously written.

The change will open the door to lobbyists handing over checks to lawmakers even as they consider the state budget and other legislation. For decades, state law barred any donations from lobbyists before June 1 or when the Legislature is in session.

Personal donations from lobbyists to candidates would still be prohibited before April 15 in an election year.

The GAB was “bullied into submission” by lobbyists who pushed for a liberal interpretation of the law, allowing them to more easily make campaign donations, said Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that tracks money in politics.

“It’s a sad commentary on the condition of our political system,” McCabe said.

The Legislature, when it passed the law in March, adopted an amendment that removed a provision allowing a lobbyist to furnish a campaign contribution at any time. But the law as written appeared to do exactly the opposite of what the Legislature intended.

The GAB initially said the law appeared to ban lobbyists from passing along donations at any time. But Republican legislative leaders, the Association of Wisconsin Lobbyists and attorneys for the Legislature said the language had liberalized the law and allowed for them to pass along the donations at any time.

Jonathan Becker, administrator of the GAB’s ethics and accountability division, said at the board’s meeting Wednesday that after further study, his interpretation of the law “has changed dramatically.” Becker said he now believes the law allows for lobbyists to pass along donations at any time.

“What’s on the printed page was not the intent of the amendment,” Becker said of the law.

The board, which consists of six retired judges, agreed with Becker and voted unanimously to enforce the law as he recommended.

Given that the law will be interpreted more broadly than intended, “it’s definitely possible” lawmakers will revisit the issue next session, said Dan Romportl, a spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Vos and Fitzgerald had sent the GAB a letter this week saying the “only logical interpretation” of the law as written was to allow the donations at any point, even though that was not what the Legislature thought it had passed.

Sen. Mary Lazich, the Republican sponsor of the bill and chairwoman of the Senate Elections Committee, said the issue “will be in the mix of all of the discussions we have” next session.

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