By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Publicly funded groups and local governments spent at least $1.5 million last year to pay statehouse lobbyists — essentially, taking tax money to ask for more tax money — Wisconsin Reporter discovered.
That’s a relatively small amount compared to the nearly $68 billion, two-year state budget the Legislature is considering.
But to borrow from that old saying, “A million here, a million there, and it starts to add up” — in this case, to a bunch of irritated taxpayers.
“It is absurd to allow taxpayer money to be used in this manner because the taxpayer may not agree with the lobbying efforts,” Boyd Miller posted. “Publicly funded groups should need to win at the ballot box, like any referendum before spending one dime of taxpayer money.”
“That should be illegal,” Harold Chris Mikkelson wrote.
“Yes … groups using government funds to fund anything political is bothersome,” Mike Oliver wrote. “This practice has been going on for a long, long time.”
It has, actually, been going on for a long time, and Mike McCabe, executive director of the campaign funds-tracking organization Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said publicly funded lobbying has been bothering people since at least the early 1980s, when he first got involved in statehouse politics.
The $1.5 million does not include money state agencies spend for staff members that are allowed to lobby the Legislature.
Eleven states ban state agencies from using public funds to hire a lobbyist, and four other states have some restrictions on public funding of lobbying, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But McCabe can’t recall any legislative effort to limit publicly funded lobbying in Wisconsin.
“It hasn’t been something that’s been challenged by state lawmakers,” he said. “It’s been challenged by members of the public or by the media.”
McCabe noted, however, that public dismay “doesn’t seem to make the practice small. It doesn’t seem to make the practice go away, and it doesn’t even diminish the practice.”
Seven municipalities and counties explicitly funded lobbying efforts in the previous legislative session, according to the state’s lobbying database.
Those included areas of the liberal (Madison and Dane County) and conservative (Waukesha) persuasion.
Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, spent $178,497 on lobbying during the past legislative session, while Milwaukee County spent $218,677.
In addition, there are a number of publicly funded school districts, sewerage districts and educational systems that lobby the state, in addition to organizations such as the Wisconsin Counties Association, which receives 18 percent of its revenues from membership dues paid by the counties, which are publicly funded.
“I think with counties, if you want to say that we talk with legislators and state agencies and (try to) get them to perform one way or the other and you want to call that ‘lobbying,’ that’s true (that we do that),” WCA Executive Director Mark O’Connell said.
O’Connell, however, would define lobbying more narrowly and said what the WCA does is try to help state lawmakers and agencies realize the potential implications of legislation at the local level — how, for example, a Taxpayer Bill of Rights would be implemented, he said.
“We do much more informing, we do much more explaining, we do much more ‘if you’re going to do this route, this is what it would look like,’” he said.
McCabe said Wisconsin’s tradition of publicly funded lobbying is a byproduct of a budgeting system in which the state does most of the tax collecting, but then hands out the money to be spent at the local level.
“When you have a system where there’s money being raised (in that matter), I think there’s naturally going to be competition for those funds, and if one local government starts lobbying, then another local government will feel they need to do it, too,” he said.
Secondly, he said, “I think there’s really another strong driving force behind it, and that’s the fact that the state keeps passing all kinds of mandates on local governments (without necessarily providing funding to cover the cost). I think in a way the state brings it on itself.”
Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, president of the City of Madison Common Council, said there’s a definite trend in Wisconsin toward less local control.
She cited, as an example, the state’s decision last year to cap increases on property taxes, which are local governments’ primary way of paying for services.
“It is the local government that knows the best of what the needs of our communities are,” Bidar-Sielaff said. “If we raise (local residents’) property taxes too much, they’ll vote us out. That’s a clear choice that our community has.”
Madison spent $59,965 on lobbying during the 2011-12 legislative session, in addition to the membership dues it paid to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which spent $186,590.
The lobbying dollars are a worthy use of taxpayer money, Bidar-Sielaff said.
It’s important for Madison to stand with other municipalities to discuss the implications of state decisions on them as a group — and for Madison to have its own lobbying representative who can explain the city’s own needs to state lawmakers, she said.
One example, she said, is the taxing challenge Madison faces as a result of the high number of tax-exempt properties in the city, those used by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and state government.
John Haumersen, president of the Racine Taxpayers Association, said there’s a better way for local governments to get money from the state.
“Thinking ahead would help,” Haumersen wrote last week in an email to Wisconsin Reporter. “If the community has a plan that requires more funds than they expect and it is a good plan, they can approach the state with their plan and the cost and ask that it be included in the state budget, or they can approach the local taxpayers for support for a temporary increase in taxes for the special project of they can ask the local taxpayers/voters to approve a loan to be repaid by a tax increase.
“All the forgoing involves the taxpayers/voters in the process of spending their money,” he wrote.
But Wisconsinites shouldn’t expect a change in the status quote of publicly funded lobbying anytime soon, McCabe said.
A funding system that keeps more money at the local level and gives local governments more control has its own consequences, he said.
“If you raise the money locally, then rich communities are going to be swimming in money and poor communities aren’t going to be able to afford the basics,” McCabe said. “There are trade-offs.”
Contact Kirsten Adshead at firstname.lastname@example.org.