Special Interests Have Contributed More than $733,000 to State Budget Writers

April 17, 1999

Madison - Nearly two dozen special interests made more than $733,000 in campaign contributions to further the careers of legislators who are now members of a powerful committee responsible for retooling the governor’s proposed 1999-2001 state budget, according to a new Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report.

Health professionals, which include doctors, dentists, chiropractors, nurses and podiatrists, led the pack of special interest contributions to the campaigns of the current 16-member Joint Finance Committee. Health professionals contributed at least $98,476 since 1992 to the committee members’ campaigns. Three other special interests have contributed more than $50,000 to the members during the period. Those groups and the amounts they contributed were Lawyers/Law Firms/ Lobbyists, $78,004; Banking & Finance, $69,815; and Manufacturing & Distributing, $51,813. This roster of top contributors to the committee members compares closely to special interest contributions to all legislators and legislative candidates during the 1997-1998 campaign period.

"It’s vital for the public to know the motives and history of special interest campaign contributions to Joint Finance members. These representatives decide what programs live or die, and how much money will go to them," said Gail Shea, WDC executive director.

"Special interest contributions are aimed at gaining access to decision makers in order to convey a message that rarely urges legislators to spend money or adopt policy that is in general public interest," Shea said. "These groups are interested in money for tax breaks, and other programs and regulations that benefit them."

And special interests target their contributions strategically. The figures show that Republican Sen. Mary Panzer of West Bend heads the list of contribution recipients for two of the top four special interests. Appointed in 1993, she is one of the longest-serving members of the Finance Committee and in the Legislature. Other committee members who have lead in contributions from a special interest are Democratic Senators Russell Decker of Schofield from Health Professionals, and Kimberly Plache of Racine from Lawyers/Law Firms/Lobbyists.

Of the $733,778 contributed to Joint Finance members, Sen. Mary Panzer tops the list with a total $117,104, followed by Sen. Kimberly Plache, a newly-appointed committee member who received at least $105,869 in special interest contributions since 1991. Plache, who was elected to the Assembly in 1988, was the recipient of tens of thousands of dollars in special interest contributions during a June 1996 recall election that she won, and that gave Democrats control of the Senate. The committee’s co-chairs, Republican Rep. John Gard of Peshtigo, received $57,321, and Democratic Sen. Brian Burke of Milwaukee received $47,423 from special interests.

The committee will spend the bulk of May revising the governor’s proposed budget before sending it to the Legislature in June. Although it is early in the session, special interests have disclosed in lobbying reports filed with the Ethics Board that they are pursuing hundreds of budget items and other legislative measures.

"A sampling from some of those special interest agendas shows numerous measures that take from us and give to them," Shea said. These include proposals to reduce Medicaid’s prescription drug reimbursement program and increase Medicaid reimbursements for dentists. Other measures seek to expand tax exemptions for automated tellers and computerized business equipment, and increase the state’s interest rate ceiling on consumer credit.

Shea said that campaign finance reform is the only way to bridle the influence of these monied interests on the legislative process and public policy. Democrats and Republicans from both houses have sponsored three comprehensive plans to control campaign contributions and spending by outside interests. Shea urged lawmakers to sit down and work out their differences so that this will be the last budget and the last legislative session that is driven by special interest spending.

"How appropriate it would be to end this century and begin the next by passing a bill that kicks special interests out of the inner workings of the legislature and gives the people a greater say on public policies that will affect their lives," Shea said.

Report: Key Players and Key Interest Groups