Welfare For Incumbents Turns Legislature Into ‘Gated Community’

State Lawmakers Get Huge Reelection Boost at Taxpayers’ Expense

May 2, 2001

Madison - Nearly $470,000 in state tax dollars are spent annually on the care and feeding of each state legislator in Wisconsin, creating an enormous electoral advantage for current office holders, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported after analyzing the almost $62 million budget for legislative expenses for the 2000-01 fiscal year as well as spending trends in specific expense accounts.

Three legislative expenses in particular represent clear abuses of taxpayer money, the WDC concluded, prompting the group to call for the elimination of legislative caucus staffs, payments to private law firms for assistance in redrawing legislative districts, and election-year mass mailings. The proposed cuts in the legislature’s budget would produce a one-time savings of $6.1 million this year and an ongoing savings of $4 million annually thereafter.

  • The cost of salaries, fringe benefits, operational costs, supplies and rent for the four legislative caucuses is $3.3 million for 2000-01. The cost breakdown for each caucus is: Assembly Democratic Caucus, $790,440; Assembly Republican Caucus, $749,931; Senate Democratic Caucus, $848,000; and the Senate Republican Caucus, $892,000.

"The caucuses are nothing but taxpayer-funded campaign headquarters," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said, noting that the cost of the caucus staffs is over and above what is spent on legislators’ personal staffs and support agencies including the Legislative Reference Bureau, Legislative Council and Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

"Legislators are given plenty of help researching issues, drafting bills and responding to constituent concerns. They don’t need the caucuses for that. The role of the caucus staff is to get them reelected," McCabe said. "Taxpayers are being expected to pay to advance the political careers of their own elected representatives."

  • Election-year spending on legislative newsletters and related mailing expenses totaled $765,327 in 2000. With the exception of state senators whose terms are not up in a given election year and who thus will not be on the ballot that year, legislators may not send any constituent mass mailings at taxpayer expense after the end of May of an election year. A month-by-month analysis of mass mailing expenses in the Senate in 2000 shows that $145,086 was spent in May, while the average amount spent in the other months was $18,089. Spending on mass mailings during May accounted for 42 percent of the total annual spending for this purpose in the Senate.

"It’s curious that there’s so little news to report most months, but there’s always so much legislators need to tell their constituents in May," McCabe said. "This is purely and simply electioneering on the taxpayers’ dime."

  • The amount Republicans and Democrats have already spent or have committed to place in escrow to pay private attorneys to help them redraw legislative district lines in a way that favors them is $2.1 million. This is above and beyond the $827,200 Governor Scott McCallum included in his proposed 2001-03 state budget to be split between the houses to pay personnel and consulting costs for redistricting, which is itself a 57 percent increase over the $527,600 spent on redistricting the last time around following the 1990 census.

"More than enough money has already been set aside in the budget to enable the legislature to carry out its responsibility to reapportion legislative districts after the 2000 census. On top of that, taxpayers are being asked to pony up to pay for private lawyers who will help the parties gerrymander districts to gain a political advantage," McCabe said.

In addition to the one-time savings for costs associated with redistricting that is done only once every 10 years, the WDC’s proposed cuts would yield a permanent reduction in the legislature’s budget from the current $61.75 million to just over $57.7 million and would reduce the amount spent on each legislator from $467,836 to $437,186.

"We’e not asking for wholesale cuts. To effectively do the people’s business, legislators need support. They need help researching issues and drafting and analyzing bills. They need to be able to communicate with their constituents. We don’t touch any of that. What we’e calling attention to is the misuse of taxpayer money to advance the political fortunes of legislative incumbents," he said.

"The ironic thing is that so many legislators are opposed to campaign finance reforms that provide public financing grants to candidates who agree to limits on campaign spending. They’re fond of dismissing it as’welfare for politicians’ or ’socialized campaigning,'" McCabe said, noting that the money saved by the WDC’s suggested cuts would cover the cost of the comprehensive campaign reform bills that are awaiting action. "Those same people have no problem going on the public dole and spending the taxpayers’ money to get themselves reelected. What we have in place is a very expensive system of public financing of campaigns, but it’s only for current office holders. The candidates who seek to challenge those in power get nothing."

The campaign help legislative incumbents currently get from the taxpayers has the effect of making elections less competitive and depriving voters of meaningful choices at the ballot box, McCabe said. Ultimately, if elected representatives don’t face viable opposition at election time, they are not held accountable the way they ought to be for their actions in office and citizens are in danger of getting less responsive representation as a result, he added.

"The system that’s in place now has made the legislature a gated community," McCabe said. "Only favored insiders can get in, and once they’re in, the system keeps them there."