Cash and Carry Lawmaking

Legislature’s fall agenda heavy on rewards for big donors

November 3, 2003

Madison - The state Legislature’s agenda for the final floor session of the year is full of arcane special interest measures that will never make the public’s to-do list but are coveted by wealthy campaign contributors, a new report by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign shows.

Among the items identified in the report are increased penalties for theft of shopping carts and gasoline, two new corporate tax breaks, a bill to allow owners of old billboards to keep them up longer, and a proposal sitting on the governor’s desk to allow businesses to self-audit their compliance with environmental laws.

The obscure bills enter the legislative spotlight on the heels of recent debates over higher profile proposals that similarly lack support from the general public - a bill allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons, a "defense of marriage" bill clarifying state law that currently defines marriage as a union between a husband and wife, and a flag desecration bill.

"The people of Wisconsin are not clamoring for action on any of these issues. In the case of concealed weapons, a solid majority of the people oppose what the Legislature is doing," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said.

"The public couldn’t care less about shopping cart theft or gas station drive-offs. A lot of people are scared to death that they are a pink slip away from not being able to take their kid to the doctor. But the Legislature is doing nothing about health care," McCabe said. "What legislators are wasting time on are signature issues for this Legislature because they show how lawmakers care more about rewarding their big campaign donors than serving the public."

Among the proposals highlighted in the report and the special interests and campaign contributions that are generating legislative action on them are:

  • Senate Bill 216, which would provide a $4.6 million a year property tax exemption on restaurant machinery and equipment. The restaurant industry has contributed $420,211 to legislators since 1993, including $111,047 to the bill’s sponsors.
  • Assembly Bill 570, which would give special treatment to large retailers by increasing fines for stealing shopping carts. Supporters of the bill have contributed nearly $1.1 million to legislators, including nearly $184,000 to the bill’s author and sponsors.
  • Assembly Bill 232, which gives special treatment to gasoline station owners by increasing fines and imposing new penalties on people who steal gasoline. Retail gas dealers and businesses that support the proposal have contributed $1.21 million to legislators since 1993.
  • Assembly Bill 496, which changes billboard repair rules to allow owners to keep them standing longer. The billboard industry has contributed nearly $24,000 to legislators and legislative campaign committees.

One legislative item that continues to collect dust but is supported by an overwhelming majority of the public is campaign finance reform. Three years ago 90 percent of Wisconsin voters supported a referendum calling for comprehensive changes in the state’s campaign finance laws. Legislation that does what the public wants has been introduced, but remains bottled up in committee.

"The Legislature is flagrantly servicing big campaign donors while ignoring important concerns of the general public," McCabe said. "This hypersensitivity to special interest concerns and unresponsiveness to the average citizen is a perfect illustration of why we need campaign finance reform in the worst way."

Report: Cash and Carry