Big Money Flows to Power

Report shows special interest contributions flip-flop with party control

July 15, 2008

Madison – Most wealthy special interests contribute more to the political party that controls the Assembly and Senate, flip-flopping between Democrats and Republicans to get what they want, according to a report today by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The report, “Capitol Mercenaries,” shows a considerable number of wealthy individuals and political action committees even contributed to Democrats and Republicans at the same time when party control was split with Democrats in the majority in the Senate and Republicans in the Assembly.

WDC reviewed individual and PAC contributions to the Assembly and Senate during the first six months of 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007 – the period when the legislature spent most of its time working on the most important policy and spending proposal it must pass every two years – the state budget.

Key findings include:

  • Special interest contributions to members of the Senate – where Democrats were in control during the first six months of 2001 and 2007 and Republicans during the first six months of 2003 and 2005 – swung sharply with party control.
  • Seven special interest groups, including energy, insurance, transportation and tourism gave more to Democrats when they held the majority and then more to Republicans when they controlled the Senate.

    For example, energy industry contributions, which came mostly from utilities, totaled $6,800 to majority Senate Democrats versus $3,300 to Republicans in the first six months of 2001. When the Republicans had control in 2003 and 2005, energy interests contributed $12,032 to Republicans and $6,060 to Democrats in the first six months of 2003 and $10,400 to Republicans and $2,600 to Democrats in the first six months of 2005. After Democrats regained control of the Senate in the 2006 elections, they received $14,855 and Republicans got $8,125 from the energy industry during the first six months of 2007.

    Another 11 special interests shifted contributions to give more to the party in control of the Senate during three of the four six-month periods that were reviewed. They included bankers, business, manufacturing, construction and real estate interests.

  • When party control was split between the two houses, $1 of every $3 in contributions in the first six months of 2001 and $1 of every $4 in special interest contributions in the first six months of 2007 came from donors who gave to both majority Senate Democrats and Assembly Republicans during the two six-month periods.
  • For example, in the first six months of 2007, telecommunications interests gave $24,175 to majority Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats. Sixty-nine percent or $16,575 of those contributions came from donors who gave to both party caucuses during the period.

    Amid those contributions, the legislature took up Assembly Bill 207, a measure backed by telephone giant AT&T and much of the telecommunications industry because it changed cable regulations to make it easier for telephone companies to break into the cable market.

    In the first six months of 2001, business, manufacturing, banks, insurance and the other special interests contributed a total of $864,348 to majority Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats. Of those contributions, $276,029 or 32 percent came from donors who gave to members of both caucuses during the period.

    Amid those contributions in 2001, both majority caucuses agreed on a number of budget item sought by special interests including, a statewide post-Labor Day public school start date sought by the tourism industry, a bridge project sought by an insurance company in a town that was not consulted about it and hundreds of millions of dollars in additional spending on road construction. The caucuses also dumped a number of budget plans opposed by special interests including $125 million in business tax increases and changing a state law that gives banks first dibs at money they are owed by bankrupt companies ahead of wages owed to workers by those companies.

  • Assembly Republicans who have controlled that house since 1995 received substantially more special interest contributions per capita than Assembly Democrats even after their margin of control narrowed from a peak 61-38 in 2004 to 52-47 today.
  • In 2004, Assembly Republicans received an average $7,315 in special interest contributions per member compared with an average $4,326 per member for Assembly Democrats. After Assembly Republicans lost nine seats in the 2006 elections, special interest contributions fell to an average of $6,640 per member but average special interest contributions to Assembly Democrats increased only $18, to $4,344 per member in the first six months of 2007.

    Viewed another way the overall Assembly per capita average in special interest contributions for the first six months of 2007 is $5,550 per member. With a 52-47 split one would expect average per capita contributions to each caucus to be much closer to the overall Assembly per member average if special interest contributions flowed proportionately by party representation, rather than targeted to the party in control. Instead, the Assembly Republicans’ $6,640 per capita is 20 percent higher than the overall Assembly per member average while the Assembly Democrats’ $4,344 is 22 percent below the overall average.

  • Special interests contributions often surge when a rank-and-file legislator becomes a legislative leader because leaders determine the policy and spending proposals that pass, fail or die. Overall contributions to half of the 13 legislators who served as legislative leaders since 2001 sharply increased compared to annual contributions they received before or after they were legislative leaders.
  • For instance, former Republican Assembly Speaker John Gard received $232,913 in special interest individual and PAC contributions in 2003 – the first year he was speaker. During the previous three years, Gard received between $38,944 and $59,599 each year, totaling $139,467 in special interest contributions.

    Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz received $178,701 in special interest contributions in 2005 and $103,486 in 2006 – the two years he held the job. Before he became Senate leader, he received between $6,650 and $17,700 a year from 2001 through 2004. A year after he left the post, in 2007, he received $10,100 in special interest contributions.

Report: Capitol Mercenaries