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When the unions’ lobbying money flowed, it really flowed. And then, for the most part, it dried up.

During the first half of 2011, labor unions collectively reported spending more than $7 million on lobbying in Wisconsin. This six-month total was $2 million more than these same unions spent during the entire prior two-year legislative session, 2009-10.

Four unions representing public employees in Wisconsin led the state Government Accountability Board’s top 10 list of spenders between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2011. These unions — the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), AFSCME Council 11 and AFSCME International — reported spending a total of $6.3 million on 25,558 hours of lobbying.

But in latter half of 2011, according to recently filed reports, these four unions collectively spent $353,193 on 3,153 hours of lobbying. In terms of dollars, that’s a 94 percent decline.

In the first half of 2011, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO led the state in lobbying outlays, at $2.3 million. In the year’s second half, the group reported spending just $25,123, barely 1 percent of its earlier total.

As that character played by Fred Willard in “A Mighty Wind” might ask, “Wha’ happened?”

First of all, the unions spent huge amounts of time and money in the first half of 2011 organizing rallies all over the state in opposition to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s changes to collective bargaining. This got logged as an attempt to influence state law or policy.

“We tend to be pretty liberal in what we report, to be in full compliance with the law,” says Susan McMurray, a lobbyist for AFSCME Council 11. She notes that the state budget dominated the first half of 2011, when the union spent $1.2 million. But there were fewer issues of concern in the year’s second half, when just $158,304 was spent.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, says “the first six months of the year brought unprecedented attacks on working people and Wisconsin’s unions. We spent significant time fighting Governor Walker’s union-busting bill and job-killing budget.”

Bloomingdale says her union is now focused on educating members, suggesting a change in focus. Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for WEAC, whose spending went from $2.1 million to $167,846, speaks to this more directly.

“We’ve had a lot of repositioning of people and we shifted our focus to the grassroots,” Brey says. “People who had previously done lobbying are now organizing members in communities around the state.”

WEAC, which last year trimmed its workforce significantly, including about two dozen layoffs, has gone from having 15 registered lobbyists in January 2011 to just nine now.

“We’re doing things as a union a whole new way,” says Brey, acknowledging that new rules make it harder for unions to keep members, requiring additional outreach. “Our members are very engaged and active at the local level.”

Others, meanwhile, are sticking to more traditional approaches. Groups including the Wisconsin Medical Society, Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Hospital Association saw their lobbying costs stay somewhat steady, in the $200,000 range for each half of the year.

And spending by the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce rose from $193,244 to $246,345. WMC has registered an interest in more than 100 bills, identifying just one — AB 426, to revamp the state’s mining rules — as accounting for more than 10 percent of its effort in the last half of 2011, in this case 17 percent.

Walker, speaking at a WMC event in Madison on Feb. 16, “urged the business leaders to do all they could to get the bill passed,” according to the Associated Press. We’ll know in six months or so if they obliged.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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