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By Dave Umhoefer June 12, 2013

Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty says law aims to discourage contributions to groups Soglin disagrees with

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin wants to require city contractors to publicly disclose donations they’ve made to super PACS or advocacy groups operating in Wisconsin.

That has drawn objections from a conservative public interest law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. It contends the liberal mayor’s proposed ordinance is unconstitutional and violates "a bedrock principle of our democracy that government cannot play favorites among citizens, including public contractors, based on their political beliefs."

So why does Soglin want to mandate the public disclosures by firms doing business with the city?

Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty offered this answer in a June 4, 2012 post on its website: The proposed ordinance, "according to Mayor Soglin, is intended to discourage contributions to organizations with which he disagrees."

Is that what Soglin has said is a goal of the legislation?

Asked to back up the group’s claim, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty president and general counsel Rick Esenberg pointed to a May 8, 2013 story in Madison’s Capital Times that quoted Soglin extensively about his motives.

The article stated that actions by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature that ran contrary to the wishes of Madison and Soglin were on the mayor’s mind  when he drafted the ordinance.

"Legislative action since Gov. Scott Walker’s election — including Act 10 in 2011 curtailing the collective bargaining power of most public workers, and more recently, legislation setting levy limits for municipalities and restricting cities’ powers in tenant-landlord law — got Soglin wondering if companies supporting Republican causes would rather lobby against the city or do business with it," the Cap Times story said.

It added: "He’s betting that exposing such activities might prompt some companies to curtail them."

Those passages suggest pretty strongly that Soglin believes that some contractors faced with being identified as pro-Republican or pro-conservative will reconsider their political activity under his proposal to require them to publicly report their now-private donations to advocacy groups.

Deeper into the Capital Times interview, Soglin made another reference to the right side of the political spectrum.

He mentioned the Koch Brothers, the billionaire industrialists who founded the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, a tea-party organization that supported Walker in his 2012 recall win. It’s unclear how much the group raises and spends because as a tax-exempt organization the group, like many others, does not have to disclose its donors.

Soglin’s additional comments from the article:

"I think it would be a good idea to know if the bidders are contributing to political efforts which go into organizations that may be lobbying for certain kinds of outcomes or working against the interests of the city. It is simply the idea that sunshine is good."

"If a company bidding on a city contract also is lobbying for state or federal regulations that make their product required in their industry, the public ought to know about it. At the same time if they’re supplying the city while they're behaving like the Koch brothers, it would be good for the public to know it."

"It’s a bit ironic when someone wants a contract with government, yet supports organizations that hate government and try to make it inefficient."

So that is what is in the article.

To be sure, the language of the proposed ordinance itself doesn’t say Soglin’s intent is to squelch donations.

It says information on donations is "essential to the operation of a democracy, informing voters and governments about the activities of those attempting to influence the operations of government."

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Indeed, the proposal would require disclosure of donations to groups of any political stripe -- it does not single out conservatives or Republicans. Rather, the ordinance specifies that firms and minority owners disclose donations made to tax-exempt 501(c)(4) advocacy or "super PAC" organizations operating in Wisconsin the prior two years.

Contractors would face a one-year ban from receiving city contracts if they fail to disclose any donations to advocacy groups within 30 days of getting a contract.

When we reached Soglin, he acknowledged the ordinance might cause some firms hoping to continue as city contractors to stop making donations to groups that oppose the views of he and other city leaders.

"I will not say that this will leave things exactly the way things are," he said.

But Soglin added this:

He said the contractors were free to exercise their First Amendment rights and that he hopes they continue to make such donations, saying, "I want to know where they stand."

He said his goal was to unmask donations, for example, by firms whose ownersmake private donations to advocacy groups working to unseat sitting aldermen. Or to identify firm officials who give to groups supporting private-school vouchers and other programs and decisions he and city officials have opposed.

"I think the public has a right to know," said Soglin.

What would happen if left-leaning city officials discover that contractors are fighting the views of city officials in private?

Soglin said no city officials will take into account political donations when officials are deciding on awarding a contract. That language is also included in the ordinance.

But Scott Resnick, the Madison Common Council’s president pro tem, told us in an interview that aldermen would, in fact, use the information on donations made to groups supporting Republicans in state government when evaluating whether firms should be rewarded future city contracts.

"So we want to know if you were putting money towards that before we sign another contract with you," he said. "This would be one more data set that will be used to make decisions" on awarding contracts.

In the view of Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s Esenberg, the ordinance’s statement that political activity would not be held against firms at contract time shows the provision has no legitimate government purpose.

"Curiosity is not a valid governmental purpose, nor is the exposure of private contributions to the public for use by you or others in the political arena," Esenberg wrote to Soglin on June 3, 2013.

Soglin, Esenberg said, leaves the listener no other choice but to think that he favors an outcome in which contractors curtail their political activity.

"He wants to out these people as conservatives or libertarians, and they won’t want to be outed that way in Madison," Esenberg said.

Our rating

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty contended that, according to Soglin himself, the proposed ordinance "is intended to discourage contributions to organizations with which he disagrees."

The group cites a newspaper interview that paraphrased Soglin saying that could happen in some cases as a result of his legislation. Soglin told us the same thing, but said his goal was limited to transparency.

His statements make pretty clear he looks forward to forcing contractors to choose between trimming their political activity or disclosing it and facing the consequences. And he predicts some will stop making donations.

We rate the statement True.

Our Sources

Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, "WILL warns Madison mayor about proposed disclosure ordinance," June 4, 2013

Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, June 3, 2013 letter to Mayor Paul Soglin

Phone interview with Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, June 6, 2013

Phone interview with Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, June 6, 2013

Phone interview with Madison City Attorney Michael May, June 6, 2013

Phone interview with Scott Resnick, Madison alderman and president pro tem, June 6, 2013

The Capital Times, "Mayor Paul Soglin wants city contractors to disclose lobbying, contributions,"  May 8, 2013

Draft of proposed ordinance requiring certain city contractors to disclose contributions to advocacy organizations, File No. 29977, City of Madison, accessed June 6, 2013

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Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty says law aims to discourage contributions to groups Soglin disagrees with

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