Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Update, 11:50 a.m.: Added newly available information from the Government Accountability Board on total lobbying expenses over 2009-2010.
Much attention is paid, and rightly so, to the enormous amounts of cash poured into political campaigns as contributions to candidates and through third-party groups that, in the estimation of state Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, have “hijacked” campaigns and made candidates “almost irrelevant.”
Massive amounts of money and effort are also invested by groups seeking to influence legislation through lobbying. In the 2009-10 legislative session, state lobby groups reported spending a total of $65.4 million, according to data released today by the state Government Accountability Board.
Reports for the first six months of 2011 from the state’s more than 700 lobby groups, due Aug. 1, are still trickling in and won’t be tallied for several months, says agency spokesman Reid Magney.
But a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism review shows that spending is up, way up, for at least one lobby sector: labor unions.
The review found that 25 labor unions collectively reported spending a total of $7.2 million on lobbying in Wisconsin between Jan. 1 and June 30. That’s more than the $5.2 million the same unions spent lobbying in all of 2009-10. The total for the first six months of 2009, also the start of a new legislative session as a biennial budget was being passed, was $1.9 million.
Overall, the 25 unions reported spending 34,880 hours lobbying halfway through 2011, including nearly 2,800 hours directly communicating with state officials. That compares to about 39,355 hours of total lobbying in all of 2009-10. (See the data below)
Leading the pack was the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for 250,000 workers in 1,000 unions. It reported spending $2.3 million on lobbying in the first half this year. That’s eight times as much money as the union’s lobby total in all of 2009-10.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents 98,000 public education employees, reported spending $2.1 million and 9,370 hours on lobbying. Like other unions, WEAC says its lobby costs were driven upward by its tactical support of protests against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union initiatives.
“We helped bring together a historic show of support for what Wisconsin values – and that unprecedented effort is reflected by the funds we redirected from other purposes to this movement,” WEAC president Mary Bell said in a statement. The union had staff on hand “to support members during various rallies and events – ensuring organized, peaceful protests.”
AFSCME Council 11, a service council for three AFSCME branches, spent $1.2 million in the first half of 2011, more than twice its total from 2009-10. And AFSCME International managed a six-fold increase, from $108,917 in 2009-10 to $694,422 in the first half of this year.
“It was for lobby-related work, not lobbyists,” says Doug Burnett, the Wisconsin political and legislative director of AFSCME International. Organizers were brought in from all over to stage rallies throughout the state.
A major focus of the unions’ lobby effort, as reported to the state, was fighting the budget repair bill that included curbs on collective bargaining and other changes affecting public employee unions. Those measures passed pretty much as initially proposed.
In other words, the unions were not just big spenders in this latest lobby lollapalooza, but also big losers. They spin it differently.
“We engaged in this effort to persuade lawmakers to kill this bill, and they chose to ignore us,” says Susan McMurray, government relations representative with AFSCME Council 11. But she calls the effort “probably the most invigorating grassroots expression of solidarity” in state history — one that spurred, among other things, the partially successful recall elections.
“We lost in terms of the battle of the bill,” says McMurray, “but we’ve succeeded in building a movement.”
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
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