Legislators Favor Campaign Contributors Over Safe Water

Committees tell constituents, “Here’s manure in your water”

August 10, 2006

Madison - A proposal to reduce incidents of drinking water being polluted by manure was rejected by legislators because a small group of large agribusiness interests, who complained the rules were too strict, have spent nearly $916,000 on legislative elections since 2000, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign says.

The proposal, which was rejected at an August 3 hearing by the Senate and Assembly Agriculture committees, would have regulated manure spreading by the state’s 150 large factory farms that have 700 or more animals. The spreading of large amounts of animal waste, particularly on frozen ground, has been the source of more than four dozen incidents of well contamination and fish kills over the past two years.

One incident seriously sickened a Luxemburg family with three small children. In another case earlier this year, animal waste was blamed for contaminating more than six dozen wells in the Brown County Town of Morrison so badly that some residents said their tap water smelled like manure. The state is paying tens of thousands of dollars to help residents dig new wells, but environmentalists argue the new wells could be polluted in a short time without regulations to control future manure spreading.

After eight hours of testimony – much of which the Senate ag committee skipped – the Senate committee told state officials to revise the proposal because it was “arbitrary and capricious, and imposes an undue hardship,” according to Committee Chairman Dan Kapanke. Here are a few of the real reasons for the committee’s action:

  • Elections are three months away, and agricultural interests are big contributors. Agricultural interests made $454,408 in large individual and political action committee contributions to legislators from 2000 through 2005. Most of it, $371,663, was made to Republicans who control the Assembly and Senate and determine the fate of proposals like the manure rule;
  • The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation spent an additional $461,478 between 2000 and 2005 on advertising, mailings and other electioneering activities, known as independent expenditures, to support legislative candidates who vote with agriculture;
  • Half of the legislators – particularly Republicans – on the Senate and Assembly agricultural committees are among the agriculture industry’s top recipients of campaign contributions. Eighteen of the 20 legislators on the committees received $80,914 in campaign contributions from agricultural special interests from 2000 through 2005, and 15 of the 20 members have benefited from $71,570 in independent spending on their behalf by the Farm Bureau Federation (see Table).

Five members of the Assembly ag committee later attacked a group representing hunters and fishermen for criticizing legislative action on the issue. Here are some of their comments:

“As members of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, our first duty is to consider Wisconsin’s agriculture industry,” said Republican Representative Debi Towns of Janesville, one of the agriculture industry’s leading recipients of campaign contributions. She received $8,164 in contributions from 2002 through 2005, and the Farm Bureau Federation has spent an additional $10,965 on electioneering activities to support her in her last two elections.

“. . .those folks know better than to use children’s health to try to force through a rule, which was just too far-reaching,” said Republican Representative Mary Williams of Medford, who received $4,795 in contributions from agricultural interests from 2002 through 2005. The Farm Bureau Federation has spent $11,536 on election activities to support her in her last two elections.

Table
Campaign Contributions and Independent Expenditures
from the Agriculture Industry to Members of the
Senate and Assembly Agriculture Committees
2000-2005

Name Party Contributions Independent
Expenditures
Rep. Jerry Petrowski R $17,600 $2,159
Sen. Dan Kapanke R $11,695 $2,294
Rep. Debi Towns R $8,164 $10,965
Sen. Ron Brown R $7,055 $0
Sen. Neal Kedzie R $5,200 $6,859
Rep. Gabe Loeffelholz R $4,800 $8,123
Rep. Mary Williams R $4,795 $11,536
Rep. Scott Suder R $4,100 $1,437
Rep. Alvin Ott R $3,975 $77
Rep. John Ainsworth R $3,190 $77
Rep. Amy Vruwink D $1,805 $15,646
Sen. Luther Olsen R $1,600 $11,019
Rep. Barbara Gronemus D $1,550 $77
Sen. Dave Hansen D $1,450 $0
Sen. Jon Erpenbach D $1,300 $0
Rep. John Steinbrink D $1,250 $77
Sen. Mark Miller D $935 $0
Rep. Louis Molepske D $450 $1,147
Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer D $0 $77
Rep. Joseph Parisi D $0 $0