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View from around the state: Public should know who is trying to influence government

— From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The billionaire owner of a company that makes lead formerly used in paint gives Wisconsin Club for Growth $750,000 to help buck up Gov. Scott Walker and GOP senators during a political crisis — the recall elections in 2011 and 2012.

Later, Republicans approve a measure retroactively shielding paint makers from legal liability.

A company that wants to dig a huge open-pit mine in the North Woods gives $1.2 million to Wisconsin Club for Growth around the same time.

Later, Republicans loosen the state’s mining laws.

Are these coincidences or examples of something darker in Wisconsin politics?

There may not have been a smoking gun proving corrupt dealing in Madison in the cache of 1,500 documents published last week by the Guardian U.S., but there was plenty of smoke.

And there was plenty of evidence that big money talks in Wisconsin’s political system.

And plenty of reason to demand a more transparent system.

Documents leaked to the Guardian were assembled by prosecutors as part of their investigation into the campaign finances of Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups during the recall elections.

The investigation was halted last year by a blistering 4-2 state Supreme Court decision written by Justice Michael Gableman in which the conservative majority declared that individuals targeted by prosecutors were “wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.” But the campaigns of two of the justices in the majority benefited from the work of some of the very groups under investigation, raising questions about their fairness. Prosecutors have appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which should take the case and answer the important questions it raises.

Among them:

— Can political campaigns coordinate in any way they like with outside groups, or are there limits? The documents published last week and earlier reporting by the Journal Sentinel demonstrated close ties between the Walker campaign and outside groups, with Walker directing donors to give money to Wisconsin Club for Growth.

— When should justices whose own campaigns for office received campaign help from litigants remove themselves from a case? The campaigns of Gableman and fellow conservative Justice David Prosser received strong support from the some of the groups prosecutors were investigating. We think there is strong precedent for arguing that Gableman and Prosser should have recused themselves from this case.

— Where is the balance between disclosure of donors and freedom of expression? Advocates for unlimited anonymous giving to outside groups claim that disclosure has a chilling effect on donors’ First Amendment right to political expression.

But what of the right of citizens to know who is trying to curry favor?

We favor broader disclosure.

Voters have a right to know that Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature sought to shield paint makers from liability after Harold Simmons, owner of NL Industries, a producer of lead formerly used in paint, made donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth.

Citizens have a right to know that Gogebic Taconite, which wanted to loosen laws governing mining in Wisconsin, chipped in $1.2 million and then got what it wanted from GOP legislators and Walker.

The U.S. Supreme Court needs to make the lines clearer.

Congress and the Legislature need to ensure that the public knows when powerful interests try to influence the government through donations to campaigns or shadowy outside groups.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision dramatically reshaped American politics, allowing massive amounts of dark money into the system. But voters still deserve to know to whom their public servants are listening.

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