Budget Writers Take $3 Million in Special Interest Contributions

Will committee tend to special interest donors or constituents in budget talks?

April 21, 2003

Madison - A legislative committee considering the governor’s 2003-05 state budget has accepted $3 million in campaign contributions from special interests whose perks are left mostly untouched in the budget plan at the expense of the general public, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

The grip special interests have on the Joint Finance Committee is stronger than ever. The members of the 2003 committee have accepted four times the $733,778 in special interest contributions taken by the 1999 committee members before they considered the 1999-2001 state budget and $1 million more than the $2 million in special interest contributions that members of the 2001 finance committee accepted before they considered the 2001-03 state budget.

The 16-member budget-writing committee is a key player in determining how the state will spend billions of tax dollars and charts the course or the fate of dozens of policies and programs that people depend on. A vital part of understanding the budget decisions the committee will make in the next few weeks lies with the large campaign contributors who support them and their partisan caucuses.

Senator Alberta Darling, a River Hills Republican and committee co-chair, accepted the most - more than $500,000 since 1993 - from bankers, realtors, manufacturers, builders and other wealthy special interests (Table 1). She was followed by Republican Senators Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls who has accepted $396,062 and Mary Lazich of New Berlin who has collected $378,987.

The Republican-controlled committee is working on a budget crafted by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle that leaves untouched all but $1 million of an estimated $5 billion a year worth of policy favors that benefit powerful special interest contributors. These breaks, highlighted in two WDC reports earlier this year called “The Graft Tax” and “Graft Tax (Part 2),” cost each taxpayer more than $1,300 each year.

Most of the committee members appear to be getting the same type of political life support from these special interests as the governor. Bankers and the financial community have deposited more than $389,000 into the campaign accounts of the committee members (Table 2) followed by manufacturers who have contributed $260,449, the construction industry which has donated $247,583 and health professionals who have contributed $222,675.

Those groups will use those investments to protect the breaks they have had for years as well as try to grab a few new ones. Business, construction, real estate and other interests enjoy sales and property tax exemptions worth a total of $3.2 billion a year and the road builders used campaign contributions to drive a road building budget to nearly $458 million - one third more than the national average - just to name a few.

The will to act on behalf of their voting constituents rather than their cash constituents would ease the budget burden projected for taxpayers, homeowners and other members of the general public. But the odds on that hope seem slim.

A better bet would be an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance laws like the fundraising and spending restrictions and other changes in Senate Bill 12 - the Ellis-Erpenbach proposal - to reduce special interest influence and their large contributions in political campaigns and policy making.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Doyle’s budget does not set aside funding for campaign finance reform, estimated to cost $4 million a year - a fraction of the cost of the breaks and perks for special interests - and the committee has yet to show the political will to tackle it.

Table 1Table 2Appendix: Charts


(Click on the member’s name for a chart showing his or her special interest contributions)

Alberta Darling R S08 1990 2001 $513,610
Sheila Harsdorf R S10 1988-96, 2000 1995-97, 2003 $396,062
Mary Lazich R S28 1992 2003 $378,987
Robert Welch R S14 1984-92, 1995 2001 $335,994
Michael Huebsch R A94 1994 2001 $204,663
Scott Fitzgerald R S13 1994 2003 $178,414
Theodore Kanavas R S33 2001 2003 $163,285
Jeff Stone R A82 1998 2003 $159,148
Kitty Rhoades R A30 1998 2003 $132,021
Russell Decker D S29 1990 1995 $130,385
Gwendolynne Moore D S04 1988 1999 $95,735
Dean Kaufert R A55 1990 1997 $78,442
Dan Schooff D A45 1998 2003 $69,676
Dan Meyer R A34 2000 2003 $60,861
David Ward R A37 1992 1999 $52,311
Spencer Coggs D A17 1982 1993-97, 2001 $43,110
TOTAL $2,992,704

*Totals represent large individual and PAC contributions from 1993 through 2002 for members elected before 1993. Totals for members elected after 1993 represent contributions from the year they were elected through 2002.


Banking & Finance $389,124
Manufacturing & Distributing $260,449
Construction $247,583
Health Professionals $222,675
Business $206,928
Retired/Homemakers/Non-income earners $172,168
Real Estate $164,360
Lawyers/Law Firms/Lobbyists $162,015
Political/Ideological $158,023
Insurance $142,718
Transportation $141,371
Tourism/Leisure/Entertainment $118,457
Natural Resources $99,707
Road Construction $86,800
Health Services/Institutions $76,490
Telecommunications & Computers $64,499
Agriculture $63,912
Labor Unions $61,045
Energy $54,707
Civil servant/public employee $44,973
Education $44,370
Non-Profit/Social Services $10,230
Defense $100
TOTAL $2,992,704

**Figures represent large individual and PAC contributions from 1993 through 2002.