One still-unanswered question in the Wisconsin budget standoff is who is paying the expenses -- hotel, transportation, etc. -- of the 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state rather than allow debate and a vote on Gov. Walker's budget proposal. "We have no idea how they're funding their out-of-state costs," a Republican Senate aide said a few days ago. "We would love to know."
Now, it turns out at least one of the fleeing Democrats asked the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the state's key interpreter of campaign and ethics laws, for an opinion on whether Democrats can use campaign funds to pay their expenses in exile. The Board said yes.
"The Government Accountability Board staff has been asked whether campaign funds may properly be used by the 14 Democrat senators currently absenting themselves from the state to pay for hotels and other expenses incurred as a result of the decision to leave," wrote Board general counsel Kevin Kennedy in a February 22 letter to state senators. "In the opinion of the Board's staff, campaign funds may be used for this purpose."
Kennedy explained that Wisconsin law mostly restricts the use of campaign funds to purposes related to campaigns and elections. But he added that in the past the Board has used quite a bit of latitude when it comes to allowing political figures to spend campaign funds. In the case of the fleeing Democrats, Kennedy said the Board based its opinion, at least in part, on two news releases from Republican Gov. Scott Walker's office which "characterized the actions of the Democrat senators in Illinois as being related to campaign fundraising and that the state Senate Democratic Committee has raised close to $300,000 in the past two weeks."
In other words, the Board said that since Walker accused Democrats of using their self-imposed exile to raise campaign contributions, then that exile is in fact campaign-related and Democrats may use campaign funds to finance it. The Board also noted that several of the hiding Democrats now face recall petitions, which means that the contributions they can accept to finance their time on the lam are not subject to limits that apply to other types of contributions. Of course, the Democratic senators did not flee the state because they face recall petitions; they face recall petitions because they fled the state. Nevertheless, the Board says using campaign money to pay for hotels and other expenses in exile is permitted.
Finally, Kennedy wrote that the fleeing senators "may not accept personal gifts of money, or anything of substantial value, to facilitate their stay."
The Board, which is made up of six retired judges, is "charged with oversight of Wisconsin's campaign finance, elections, ethics, and lobbying laws," according to its website. "The mission of the Board is to ensure accountability in government by enforcing ethics and lobbying laws, and to enhance representative democracy by ensuring the integrity of the electoral process." A Board spokesman would not comment on the decision, saying the Board is not allowed to discuss the advice it gives to legislators.
In the days since Kennedy's opinion, the fleeing Democrats have raised substantially more than the $300,000 cited in the Board's letter. Even if one subtracts hotel and travel expenses from the total, it's likely the Democrats' campaign coffers will be greatly enriched by their decision to run away from the job.