Gov. Scott Walker survived his recall election. The same cannot be said for the integrity of campaign finance laws in Wisconsin.
Incumbents targeted for recall are freed from Wisconsin's normal fundraising limits, and can collect unlimited contributions from individual donors. With the election between Walker and his Democratic opponent, former Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, seen as a battleground for national partisan politics, money poured in on both sides. But Walker exploited the seemingly infinite loophole to tremendous advantage: By election day, Walker's campaign had received more than $30 million in donations, a total that approached the $37.5 million spent by both sides during the 2010 election, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Wisconsin received a grade of 'C-' from the State Integrity Investigation for its political financing laws and practices, with reporter Kate Golden finding proper measures on limits, enforcement, and transparency, while also documenting numerous exemptions and back-channels, including the recall election loophole. But in other states, the potentially polluting influence of unlimited, and sometimes unsupervised campaign financing is constant and permanent, borne out of state laws and practices -- or their absence.
Consider Missouri, where Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon is running for reelection against Republican candidate Dave Spence. Under Missouri's laws, which have no limits on donations to candidate campaigns, Nixon and Spence are free to ask for and receive enormous checks. Through April, Nixon's campaign warchest was stocked with six-figure donations from a political action comittee, two corporations, two unions, and one individual, according to a database maintained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Spence, an independently wealthy businessman, has already dumped millions of his own money into his campaign, but isn't turning down any outside support, either: The same database shows Spence has received donations of $25,000 or more from seven individuals and four corporations.
The allowance of these remarkable sums is one reason why Missouri received a 59 percent 'F' grade in the political financing category in the State Integrity Investigation. As journalist Mike Sherry writes under the state's 0 percent score on indicator No. 47, Missouri politics is subject to contamination from all angles, "whether it's lobbyists donating to candidates, PAC’s donating to political parties, wealthy individuals spreading money around all over, or any other corrupting influence you can think of."
Both Spence and Nixon are running on strong ethics reform platforms, seeking to maintain, or perhaps restore the integrity of government in Missouri. Even still, neither has expressed support for imposing limits on donations from individuals, corporations, unions or PACs.
In some states, like New York, it's the lack of oversight, enforcement and transparency that soil the campaign system. New York received a 'D-' in the political financing category, with reporter David King finding that the Empire State has adequate limits on donations, but a systemic lack of government supervision and public access on the process. "New York penalizes for late filings, but not for donating over limits," King writes, explaining the state's 0 percent score on indicator No. 45. "Former Sen. Pedro Espada had a long, almost comical, history of flaunting campaign finance law, he missed multiple filings for multiple committees under his name, and racked up over tens-of thousands of dollars in fines but was never prosecuted or investigated for it."
The state also scored poorly on indicators that assessed campaign finance data's availability to the public, particularly through internet usage. On multiple indicators, it was found that the information was available, but not in any way that would be easily accessed or understood by the average citizen.
Whether New York's enforcement practices will change remains to be seen; the newly formed Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which replaces the oft-criticized Commission on Public Integrity, has yet to conduct a major investigation into campaign finance violations. But already, the state has recognized and addressed the issue of transparency, with the recent launch of the New York Open Government website garnering heaps of praise from civic groups and pro-transparency advocates.
“Secrecy breeds corruption, while transparency generates confidence,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said, naming just one of the subjects the State Integrity Investigation took into account when judging all 50 states' risk of corruption through political financing.