It's been called a quirk in state law and even "an outrageous loophole." In fact, it was a deliberate change with unintended consequences.
The change, passed in 1987, temporarily allows (PDF) unlimited contributions from individuals for recall-related expenses. For Gov. Scott Walker and five other Republicans, the window of opportunity for incurring these expenses was open from Nov. 15, when the current recalls were launched, to March 30, when the Government Accountability Board certified (PDF) the elections.
For Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, the normal cap is $10,000 per person for a four-year election cycle. Through May 1, Walker has snared 97 donations above this amount, state Government Accountability Board filings show. These totaled just over $5.5 million, or about $4.5 million more than this group of individuals could normally give.
Walker's campaign has flagged a total of $11 million in contributions as "Recall," according to a GAB analysis. This may have been because the donors maxed out their ability to give on other candidates, or just an accounting convenience.
The law suspends usual limits for "the payment of legal fees and other expenses" incurred in connection with a pending recall, until the election is ordered. The ability to incur recoverable costs ended on March 30, but the ability to accept unlimited donations did not.
"You are still under the law entitled to raise contributions in excess of normal limits if you use these for recall-related debts," says Jonathan Becker, the GAB's Ethics Division administrator.
Becker adds that there's some question among GAB staff whether incurred expenses that have been paid, as Walker's have, still qualify as debts. But Walker's campaign apparently believes they do qualify. He is continuing to receive donations in excess of $10,000 -- more than $1 million of them since March 30.
Walker's campaign filings have labeled $13.5 million in expenditures as recall-related. That's $2.5 million less than what he's identified as recall contributions. And this amount could grow higher if the campaign amends some of the contributions that were classified as "Recall" but didn't have to be.
Kleefisch and the state senators facing recalls have likewise all benefited from contributions in excess of normal limits, while the Democrats vying for these positions have not. Indeed, three of these senators -- Van Wanggaard, Terry Moulton and Pam Galloway (who has dropped out of the race) -- have reported extra-legal donations in excess of their recall-related costs.
The three collectively received at least $71,500 in donations beyond the usual $1,000 limit for their office. Under the law, this additional money can go only to recall-related expenses; otherwise it must be returned to donors or given to charity or the state school fund. But to date, the three senators have identified less than $30,000 in expenses.
"They've either got to reclassify expenditures as recall, or disburse excess recall funds," says GAB campaign auditor Richard Bohringer. "We'll be following up with them on that."
The GAB will continue to audit the candidates' filings and investigate any complaints. But Becker says the language allowing extra-large donations ("or other expenses") is so broad he finds it unlikely that any plausible expense would be struck down as inappropriate.
A Democrat-backed bill to turn off this campaign finance spigot died a quiet death in the GOP-controlled Legislature's most recent session. State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), the bill's lead Senate author, calls the current ability of recall targets to raise unlimited funds "a subversion of democracy."
But the 1987 change was backed by the state Elections Board, the predecessor of the GAB, which deemed it "not significant." PolitiFact Wisconsin quotes board officials as saying they didn't foresee how campaign spending would boom.
At the time, the change was seen as helping state Sen. Gary George, a Democrat who racked up debt fighting a recall. It passed as part of that year's state budget, with bipartisan support, including from a Democratic assemblyman named Tom Barrett.
Bill Lueders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.