Communities Losing to Big Contributors

Report shows special interest influence eroding local control

August 4, 2005

Madison – Wealthy special interests are blocking communities from tailoring laws that best fit the needs and wishes of their citizens because they contribute millions of dollars to state policymakers who concoct state laws that prohibit local decision-making to benefit big campaign contributors, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report shows.

The report, “Gagging Democracy,” highlights state laws and proposals introduced since 1999 to overrule actions by locally elected officials on smoking in bars and restaurants, workers’ wages, public land use, billboard removal, school start dates and other issues previously left for local governments to decide. The proposals were backed by business, manufacturing, tourism, construction and other wealthy special interests that felt they were hurt by decisions by local communities.

Collectively, the state proposals to preempt local laws were supported by nine special interest groups and two unions that have contributed $8.1 million in campaign contributions to current legislators. That is seven times more than the $1.17 million in contributions collectively made to legislators by local officials, health and environmental groups and selected labor unions that opposed the proposals.

Big campaign contributors that favored preemption have given Republican legislators who have backed the preemption proposals and who control the Assembly and Senate about 13 times more in campaign contributions than the opponents of those proposals – $6.51 million versus $511,282.

Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who has signed into law at least four preemption proposals since taking office, has accepted $2.53 million from the special interest that favor preemption, about two times more than the $1.15 million in contributions he received from groups that opposed preemption.

Among the proposals highlighted in the report are bills that would establish a statewide smoking ban supported by taverns, restaurants and other tourism interests that critics say is not really a ban because it exempts taverns, bowling alleys and restaurants that seat 50 or fewer. The Assembly passed the measure on a 48-45 bipartisan vote. Despite the close vote, contributions by the bill’s supporters to those who voted for and against it were far from close. The 48 legislators who voted for the bill have received $597,306 from tourism, beer and liquor interests while the 45 who voted against it have received $232,805 from those interests.

The report also reviews a measure signed into law by Doyle that increases the statewide minimum wage but also prevents communities from setting a minimum wage different than the statewide rate. The measure drew the ire of some unions and local governments but was favored by powerful business, manufacturing, tourism and oil and gas interests which have given majority Republicans in the legislature $3.14 million, versus $124,396 by opponents of the restriction. Doyle has accepted $1.12 million from the law’s supporters since June 2000 when he announced he would run for governor, versus $234,288 from its opponents during the same period.

The Legislature and Doyle also approved a law to guarantee utilities access to land owned by a community or county for transmission line projects. The pro-utility proposal, Assembly Bill 437, is backed by utility, business, manufacturing, restaurant and transportation interests and two trade unions which have contributed $3.55 million, or 80 percent, of their legislative contributions to Republicans. The measure was approved 61-35 in the Assembly and 27-6 in the Senate and sent to Doyle.

Utilities have been one of Doyle’s fastest and most generous special interest friends. Between 1993 and 2001, the industry contributed a scant $8,661 to Doyle when he was attorney general. Their contributions to the governor have increased 1,986 percent to $180,663 from 2002, when he successfully ran for governor, through 2004. WDC previously reported that between October 2002 and June 2004 Doyle received $50,660 in contributions from executives of three utilities shortly before and after the state approved a transmission line and power plants sought by the utilities.

In his latest campaign finance report covering January through June 2005, Doyle reported receiving three contributions totaling $6,500 from American Transmission Company executives only months before he signed the bill. The proposal was initially introduced to help pave the way for the company’s controversial $420 million transmission line project from Duluth, Minnesota to Wausau.

The report also reviews contributions from the outdoor advertising industry which is backing Senate Bill 89 and Assembly Bill 155 to prohibit communities from requiring billboard owners to take them down when they become eyesores. The bills, sponsored mostly by Republicans, have not been considered by the Legislature. Billboard owners and an array of powerful special interests that back the changes have contributed $5.56 million, or 82 percent, of their contributions to legislators to Republicans who control the Legislature.

The industry’s annual campaign to weaken billboard regulations coincides with a spike in their contributions since 2001. From 1993 through 2000, the billboard industry contributed $12,785 to former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and legislative leaders. But from 2001 through 2004, the industry more than tripled its contributions, giving $43,875 to former Republican Governor Scott McCallum, Doyle and legislative leaders.

Report: Gagging Democracy