Given the many millions of dollars spent by interest groups to help determine who gets elected, it’s easy to overlook the many millions more being spent trying to influence them once they are.
In the first six months of this year, Wisconsin’s 700-plus registered lobby groups collectively invested $14.1 million trying to shape state law or policy, according to new filings with the state Government Accountability Board.
That’s actually down a bit from 2013, when spending in the first and second halves of the year totaled $17 million and $14.8 million, respectively. Lobby outlays tend to run higher in odd-numbered years, when the two-year legislative session is young and the budget is in play.
Leading the pack in spending from January through June 2014 was Wisconsin Property Taxpayers Inc., a membership-based group devoted to reforming “Wisconsin’s antiquated and regressive property tax system.” WPT reportedly spent $482,893 on 2,314 hours of lobbying.
That makes it the state’s highest-spending lobby group for the second consecutive reporting period — and the top spender in first three-quarters of the 2013-14 session, at nearly $1.2 million.
Michael Birkley, the group’s legislative director and sole registered lobbyist, received $31,200 for 938 hours of lobbying. Most of WPT’s total went to “non-lobbyist employees” — eight field workers whose discussions with people around the state about legislation are counted as a lobbying expense.
Birkley says his group’s “principal lobbying effort” is its ongoing push to eliminate the personal (as opposed to real estate) property tax. He reckons the tax, paid by businesses on non-exempt equipment, accounts for about 2 percent of total property tax collections.
A billto kill the tax was introduced on April 3, the last day of the session’s last floor period, and promptly died. Its lone sponsor, Mary Williams, R-Medford, is not seeking re-election.
WPT is also working to end local technical college taxes, shifting this burden to the state, and protect use-based assessments of agricultural land, which is important to the farmers who make up about two-thirds of its 18,500 membership.
Another top player was Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which spent $261,322 on 2,640 hours of lobbying activity in 2014. The group has registered an interest in more than 100 bills and dozens of topic areas.
In 2014, WMC favored a successful bill to ease the requirement that electric utilities boost their use of renewable energy, and opposed failed bills to hike the state minimum wage and increase state monitoring of frac sand operations.
WMC also backed recent bills to let workers “voluntarily choose to work” without a weekly day off and preempt local governments from making contractors pay prevailing wages on local projects using state funds. Neither passed.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Hospital Association spent $261,539 on 1,723 hours of lobbying. A third of this went to help defeat a proposal to cap what health-care providers can charge for services under worker’s compensation. That bill spurred dozens of groups to lobby an astonishing 2,868 hours, 59 percent by opponents.
Other top lobby groups in the first half of 2014: the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation ($242,146), Wisconsin Counties Association ($177,767), AT&T Wisconsin ($176,007) and the Wisconsin Realtors Association ($148,965).
A final fun finding: The lobby group General Motors LLC has in recent years paid around $36,000 every reporting period to the law firm of Foley & Lardner, regardless of how much lobbying it does. Such retainer agreements are common.
In the first half of 2013, Foley & Lardner received $36,397 from GM for 131 hours of lobbying, which comes to $278 per hour. But in the first half of 2014, it was paid $36,268 for 18.3 lobby hours, or $1,982 per hour. Nice work if you can get it.
A Foley & Lardner lobbyist declined comment, saying “We report what’s required by GAB and that’s all.”
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.wisconsinwatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight. The Center 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.