Judge sides with conservative group, orders Wisconsin not to enforce law on PAC donor limits

Associated Press

A federal judge just two months before Election Day has ordered that Wisconsin election officials not enforce the law limiting how much money candidates can collect from political action committees and those run by political parties and legislative campaigns.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa on Friday issued the ruling in a lawsuit brought by the CRG Network, a political action committee that works to elect conservative candidates. The group argued that the limits were a violation of its free speech rights. Randa, in granting a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law, said the group was likely to succeed on that claim.

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Kevin Kennedy, director of the Government Accountability Board that oversees elections and campaign finance laws, said he didn't expect the limits to be restored before the election. Kennedy said GAB was working with the state Department of Justice on limiting the scope of the injunction.

Randa stopped enforcement of the law as it applies to all candidates for state office, rejecting arguments from the state Government Accountability Board, which enforces election law, that CRG Network didn't have standing to challenge it other than for candidates to the state Assembly.

But Randa went further than the lawsuit was seeking, blocking enforcement of the law that limits contributions from political party and legislative campaign committees as well.

CRG Network said in its lawsuit that it tried to make donations of $250 to four Republican candidates for the state Assembly. Only one of them, Rep. Dan Knodl, of Germantown, accepted the donation, while the other three returned all or a portion of the money because they had already met their PAC donation limits.

Wisconsin's campaign finance laws set those limits at $7,763 for Assembly candidates, $15,525 for state Senate candidates, $242,550 for the attorney general and $485,190 for the governor.

The limits for political party committees are higher: $11,213 for state Assembly candidates, $22,435 for state Senate candidates, $350,350 for attorney general and $700,830 for governor.

The limits have not changed since 1990.

Mike McCabe, director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks money in state politics in Wisconsin, called Randa's ruling "out of step with what voters of every political stripe are thinking."

"It is just opening the floodgates. And we already had too much money in politics and way too much special interest influence in Wisconsin," McCabe said.

CRG Network was represented in the lawsuit by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. The group's attorney, Rick Esenberg, said in a statement that he was hopeful the Legislature would revamp the state's campaign finance laws in light of "the string of recent legal defeats."

WILL also won a lawsuit challenging the limit on aggregate contributions that individuals can make to multiple candidates. That came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against similar limits on how much individual donors can give to multiple candidates for Congress and political committees.

Republican legislative leaders have said they are looking at a comprehensive review of state campaign finance laws next year.

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