Budget on the Auction Block

Lawmakers Dangle ‘New Cut of Pork’ Worth Nearly $1 Billion to Entice Special Interest Donors

September 24, 2001

Madison - State lawmakers crafting the 2001-03 state budget offered an array of tax breaks, pork barrel spending and other budget favors worth $819 million - at a cost of $211 for every Wisconsin tax filer - to special interests who contributed unprecedented sums to campaigns in their bid to get preferential treatment, a study released today by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign shows. 

The report, "Hey Bidder, Bidder . . .," reviews more than three dozen budget proposals benefiting special interests and the campaign contributions the affected interests made to legislators and the governor.

WDC’s analysis shows the budget bill proved to be an extraordinarily effective fund-raising tool, as legislators reaped a record $1.6 million in campaign donations as they worked on the state budget, an 83 percent increase over the $875,715 legislators raised in the first half of 1999 when they crafted the previous state budget.

Governor Scott McCallum raised nearly $1.9 million while the budget was being shaped. While the governor touted saving taxpayers $62 million with 315 budget vetoes, he originally proposed or gave final approval to at least $573 million worth of special interest items, an amount equal to $148 for every state income tax filer.

"The state budget was put up for sale to the highest bidder, and the auction ended up costing ordinary citizens a bundle," said WDC executive director Mike McCabe, adding that many non-fiscal items of inestimable value to special interests also were included in the budget to benefit big donors. "Lawmakers used the budget as a campaign cash cow as never before."

The report focuses on a new trend in state budget politics - the shift away from traditional pork-barrel items aimed at making local voters happy to a new cut of pork that benefits campaign contributors outside of legislators’ districts.

Legislators such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and Joint Finance Committee co-chair Brian Burke who play a key role in shaping the budget bill also are among the legislature’s most prolific fund raisers. Nearly all of the contributions they received during the budget process came from interests outside their districts, the report shows.

"There’s always been some pork in state budgets. What’s changed is the pork is no longer put in there for voting constituents, it’s put in there for the cash constituents," McCabe said.

McCabe called for a prohibition on campaign fund raising during the state budget process, noting that the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and 43 other groups that are part of the Voters First coalition have thrown their support behind Senate Bill 104, which includes such a ban.

"Legislators shouldn’t be raising a penny while they are making budget decisions, " he said. "It is a blatant conflict of interest for legislators to be shaking down special interests for campaign contributions at the same time they are making decisions on issues those interests have a direct stake in."

A key Senate committee approved Senate Bill 104 on a strong bipartisan vote in July, and the legislation now awaits consideration by the full Senate. So far, Senate Majority Leader Chvala has refused to allow a vote on the bill in the Senate.

"SB 104 is strong reform legislation and it has broad bipartisan support," McCabe said. "If there is a fair debate and a fair vote, it will pass overwhelmingly. Only political games can stop it from passing."

“Hey, Bidder, Bidder . . .”