By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Wisconsin’s elections have seen an unprecedented cash infusion — more than $137 million on the 15 recall races since 2011, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Less visible but arguably just as important is the behind-the-scenes activity by special interests.
During the first six months of this year, a newly released Wisconsin Government Accountability Board report shows, registered lobby groups spent $13.9 million trying to influence state government. That pushes the total spent on lobbying for the session that began in January 2011 to $52.3 million.
The $13.9 million paid for 99,942 hours of lobbying by more than 750 groups. Most of this time (62,588 hours) was logged by in-house lobbyists — people who lobby as part of their jobs — but more than half the cash ($7.7 million) flowed to contract lobbyists — hired guns.
These filings, like those from the latter half of 2011, attest to a dramatic weakening of Wisconsin’s public employee unions.
In 2009-10, the Wisconsin Education Association Council led the state with $2.5 million in lobbying. Then it spent another $2 million in the first half of 2011, during the battle over collective bargaining.
But for the first half of this year, WEAC’s lobby outlays totaled just $94,031. AFSCME and the state AFL-CIO saw a similar plunge, amid sharply falling union membership and revenues.
Meanwhile, the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent $289,326 lobbying in the first half of 2012, the most for any reporting period since early 2009. Nearly a third of this effort went to the bill to revamp the state’s mining laws.
Including efforts in 2011, WMC invested more than 1,000 hours on this bill. In all, more than 50 groups spent at least 8,500 hours lobbying on the mining bill. Declared proponents logged 5,124 hours, compared to 3,296 hours by mining bill foes, an analysis shows.
The bill sailed through the state Assembly but died in the Senate, opposed by Democrats and a lone Republican. Democrats who now control the Senate want to keep working on a mining bill. But WMC recently urged the Wisconsin Mining Association not to discuss compromise before the November elections, in hopes that Republicans can win enough seats to pass the prior version.
“(W)e need to take our cues from (Gogebic Taconite) on the substance of any legislation and the strategy to get it enacted,” wrote WMC senior vice president James Buchen. “Premature discussions will only make it more difficult to get an acceptable bill passed later.”
State Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat who represents the area where the mine would be located, issued a statement lambasting WMC’s “arrogant, secretive, partisan approach.” He said the group apparently believes it “can buy and therefore control the ultimate legislation.”
But WMC was not the biggest player on the mining bill. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, a state environmental group, reported spending 2,409 hours in opposition, and Wisconsin Property Taxpayers, a group whose mission is “to lobby exclusively for property tax relief and reform,” logged 1,581 hours in support.
The taxpayers group is emerging as a major lobbying presence. In the first half of 2012, it spent $265,935, an amount that rivals WMC and surpasses other prominent lobby groups, including the Wisconsin Hospital Association ($228,972), Wisconsin Medical Society ($224,443) and the Wisconsin Counties Association ($203,223).
Besides the mining bill, Wisconsin Property Taxpayers led the lobbying push behind a resolution to launch a constitutional amendment to limit spending. It spent an equal amount of time — 790 hours, or 20 percent — backing a bill to fully fund state-imposed mandates.
Both measures failed, but the group has vowed to keep up the fight, in the next legislative session.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
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