High-spending Special Interests Getting Good Returns

August 30, 2016

Stack of Money and Shadowy Figures

Big business and conservative ideological groups got a big return on their investments in the 2015-16 legislative session.

Leading the pack among special interest lobbying groups was Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business organization; the Wisconsin Realtors Association; and Americans for Prosperity, a secret, dark money group created and funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reviewed special interest support behind about 500 partisan or controversial legislative bills and proposed constitutional amendments considered during the session, which ended last spring. (More than 2,000 legislative proposals were introduced during the 2015-16 legislative session.)

Seventeen partisan bills backed by WMC were approved by the GOP-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker during the 2015-16 legislative session.

WMC, which spent about $1 million on lobbying state policy and spending bills between January 2015 and June 2016, is traditionally one of the top outside electioneering spenders. The group spent an estimated $16.8 million since January 2010 on Republican and conservative candidates for legislative and statewide offices.

Among the WMC-backed legislative proposals that the legislature and Walker approved were:

  • Right-to-work legislation, which prohibits requiring workers to make payments to unions as a condition of employment;
  • Sweeping changes to state campaign finance laws that allow corporate contributions to parties, reduce disclosure about wealthy donors and double contribution limits to state candidates;
  • Elimination of the bipartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB), which was replaced last month by two partisan Ethics and Elections commission to oversee state campaign finance, ethics and election laws;
  • Overhauling the state civil service system to loosen the hiring and firing process for thousands of state workers.

Nine partisan bills backed by the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which spent $630,175 on lobbying between January 2015 and June 2016, were approved by the legislature and Walker. The group lobbies on environmental, tax, construction and other regulations that affect home sales and how realtors do business in Wisconsin.

Among the proposals approved by the legislature and the governor that the realtors group supported were ones that:

  • Provided more than $250 million in state and local bonding and other support to help the Milwaukee Bucks build a new arena;
  • Reduced state lead painting inspection and testing requirements;
  • Loosened standards for placing structures along the shores of lakes and rivers, and banned counties from using zoning ordinances to regulate or restrict shoreline construction projects, like boathouses and fishing rafts;
  • Limited the ability of communities to require rental unit inspections, license landlords, charge inspection fees, and enforce sprinkling ordinances stricter than state law. The law also makes it easier and faster for landlords to evict tenants and dispose of personal property that is left behind. 

The association spent an estimated $870,000 on outside electioneering activities through a corporation and a phony issue ad group to support Walker, conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and GOP legislative candidates from 2012 through 2014.

Between January 2010 and December 2014, the real estate industry was a generous contributor to current legislators and the governor. Individual and political action committee contributions from realtors totaled more than $2.4 million to Walker, and more than $1 million to current legislators, including nearly $870,000 to GOP lawmakers.

Eight bills backed by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which spent about $490,600 on lobbying between January 2015 and June 2016, were approved by the legislature and Walker. The group lobbied on tax and spending bills, environmental deregulation, school voucher expansion, and anti-union proposals. Among the bills that were approved by the GOP-led legislature and Walker that AFP supported were measures to:

  • Expand the statewide school voucher program;
  • Weaken campaign finance regulation, allow corporate contributions to parties, reduce disclosure about wealthy donors and double contribution limits to state candidates;
  • Overhaul the state’s civil service system by making it easier and faster to hire and fire thousands of state workers;
  • Eliminate the GAB;
  • Abolish the state’s nuclear power plant construction moratorium.

The secretive, dark money group does not make direct contributions to candidates. But AFP is one of the top spenders on outside electioneering activities. The group doled out an estimated $5.6 million since January 2010 to support GOP and conservative candidates for legislative and statewide offices, including $3.7 million to help Walker win his 2012 recall.