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Wisconsin lobbyists spend $15.9M in first half of 2013

By   /   August 1, 2013  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — What does $15.9 million buy you?

Either a lot of legislative attention, or not nearly as much as you might believe.

Wisconsin’s registered lobbyists spent a combined $15,924,285 in the first six months of the year trying to make their case to state lawmakers. At a total of 112,570 lobbying hours, that works out to more than $141 per hour.

The figures are as of late Wednesday afternoon. Lobbyists and lobbying principals registered with the state Government Accountability Board are required by law to file their statement of Lobbying Activities and Expense Report for the first six months of 2013 by midnight Wednesday. A GAB official expected a few stragglers. GAB’s full lobbying report should be released within the next week, according to the agency.

The latest lobbying figures best expenditures during the same period of 2012 by more than $2 million, when lobbyists spent $13.91 million rubbing elbows at the Capitol.

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MONEY TALKS: It was another big first half of the year for Wisconsin lobbyists, who spent at least $15.9 million trying to get the ear – and votes – of lawmakers.

Topping the list of big spender lobbyists, so far, is the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance. The organization, which represents the property and casualty insurance industry, spent $357,167 on lobbying activities between January and June, according to its filing with the Government Accountability Board.

Arguably, the alliance got considerably less bang for its buck — at least on a per-hour basis. The 457 hours devoted to lobbying was some six times less than the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the No. 2 heftiest spender on the list, which racked up $323,506 in lobbying expenditures on 2,636 hours.

The rest of the top 10 spending lobbying organizations include:

So, did they get their money’s worth?

“It’s too soon to tell,” said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. “If you look at how we did in the budget, the short answer is we did how we always do. Some years we do better and some years we do worse.”

The League fought and lost the battle over residency requirements for city employees, but it picked up fiscal victories elsewhere in the recently signed 2013-15 state budget.

Thompson said the organization opted to hire a contracted lobbyist this year, something the League hasn’t done in about a decade. During the first six months of 2012, the organization spent $73,000 on lobbying. Thompson said it takes time to develop relationships with lawmakers.

Mark Grapentine, chief lobbyist at the Wisconsin Medical Society, the state’s largest physician advocacy organization, said the days of Obamacare have made lobbying more demanding for the health care industry.

Grapentine grappled with the question of whether the Medical Society is getting bang for its lobbying dollar. He is the Medical Society’s chief lobbyist, after all. But the organization, he said, has had its share of successes over the years — some fast, some plodding.

“You can have a baby in nine months. If you can have a bill in nine months, that’s pretty impressive,” the lobbyist said.

The Medical Society reports 20 percent of its lobbying efforts focused on medical assistance and related programs, or benefits, and another 10 percent on myriad issues involving the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. About 15 percent of the society’s lobbying time was devoted to making the case for Assembly Bill 139, aimed at clarifying Wisconsin’s 30-year-old informed-consent statute. Specifically, the bill establishes what proponents assert is a reasonable physician standard and rejects strict liability for a physician’s missed diagnosis. It appears the lobbying time well spent. The bill passed the Assembly with bipartisan support and is expected to move through the Senate later this fall.

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LOBBYING LOVE: The top 10 lobbying spenders accounted for more than $2 million in lobbying expenditures.

Wisconsin Property Taxpayers Inc. continued its six-figure lobbying campaign to hold property taxes at the rate of inflation or less. The organization finished fifth on the big spender list, at $232,955, more than $30,000 shy of its lobbying expenditures in the first half of 2012. The organization spent nearly $800,000 lobbying lawmakers in the volatile 2011-13 legislative session.

So, did Property Taxpayers Inc. get its money’s worth this time around?

“We’re close,” said Mike Birkley, WPT’s legislative director since 1991. “There were many other things in the budget we were concerned about that we registered on to talk to legislators about: school aid, shared revenue … but there’s always next year.”

The latest two-year state budget effectively holds property taxes flat for most Wisconsin homeowners.

Thompson asserts Wisconsin’s system of tracking lobbying dollars is so much smoke. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities executive said the real influence isn’t in the average lobbyist reading budgets and policy documents and knocking on lawmaker doors. The real power, he said, is in the millions of dollars in campaign contributions stuffed in the pockets of politicians.

“The best lobbyists don’t leave any finger prints, like cat burglars,” Thompson said, calling the lobbying reports a “false trail” legislators laid out to the public. “If anyone thinks they can read those reports and get any significant insight into the Wisconsin legislative process they are, in my opinion, delusional.”

Other lobbyists of note:

  • Gogebic Taconite LLC spent $98,764, lobbying 736 hours for passage of a bill that streamlines the state’s mining permit process. The Legislature passed the bill and Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law. Gogebic Taconite, or GTAC, is moving through the regulatory process in its plan to develop a $1.5-billion iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.
  • The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest public teachers union, spent $83,995 and 781 hours lobbying lawmakers. That’s a decline from $94,000 spent during the first half of 2012, and well off the pace of the $2.35 million the union spent in the 2011-12 legislative session, when WEAC battled public sector collective bargaining reforms.
  • Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation reported lobbying expenditures of $155,954.49 and 644 hours devoted to lobbying activity. The Farm Bureau reported 100 percent of its lobbying time was spent on “minor efforts,” or “Time spent on matters each of which accounted for less than 10 percent of the organization’s lobbying.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com

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M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

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