During the past two years, money has played an unprecedented role in Wisconsin politics.
There were astonishing levels of public engagement, and engagement, with crowds swarming the Capitol. Special interest groups staged rallies and ran ads. It seemed certain that Wisconsin would set a new record for lobbying outlays -- money spent trying to influence state law or policy.
After all, these expenditures rose steadily in each two-year legislative session since 1999-2000, totaling $65.4 million in 2009-10 (PDF), according to the state Government Accountability Board.
Tallies garnered from the GAB in mid-April show that lobby spending during this tumultuous two-year period reached ... drum roll please ... $62.9 million.
That's right: The total, while not exactly chump change, was lower than before. As they say on R-rated movies dubbed for network TV, "What the freak?"
"Maybe we've reached full capacity in terms of lobbying," suggests Jay Heck, executive director of the nonprofit Common Cause in Wisconsin. "We're at the saturation stage."
Jonathan Becker, the GAB's ethics division administrator, has another theory: "It's the economy. Organizations and businesses are really cutting back on their expenditures," including those for lobbying. "My guess is that, over time, it will increase again."
The number of state lobby groups stayed about the same -- 782 in 2009-10 and 778 in 2011-12. And Wisconsin still had about 800 licensed lobbyists, or six for every member of the Legislature.
Heck, himself a licensed lobbyist, recalls that the state's current lobby disclosure law passed in 1998 with something known as "bipartisan support." The bill was approved unanimously by both houses of the state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tommy Thompson.
In 2011-12, GAB numbers show, Wisconsin contract lobbyists (hired guns) were reportedly paid $30.8 million. Meanwhile, in-house lobbyists (lobby group employees) reported their lobbying-related compensation at $24.3 million. Other lobby costs came to $7.8 million.
The session's highest rollers, spending a total of $6.3 million, were public employee unions -- Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, Wisconsin Education Association Council and AFSCME Council 11. Tellingly, 94% of this flowed forth in 2011, when the unions were fighting changes that would weaken their power; just 6% came in 2012, after these changes were made.
Other big spenders in 2011-12 include Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Wisconsin Hospital Association, AT&T Wisconsin, Wisconsin Medical Society, Wisconsin Property Taxpayers Inc. and Wisconsin Counties Association. All came in between $750,000 and $1 million. They were among more than 50 groups to top the $250,000 mark.
In terms of time spent, Wisconsin Property Taxpayers, a "property tax relief and reform" group, led the pack with 13,267 hours. A quarter of this, the largest share, went toward backing new state rules on metallic mining. Those efforts failed in 2011-12 but sailed through this year.
Other big players, time-wise, were the three aforementioned unions and AFSCME International, Wisconsin Independent Businesses, Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and the Wisconsin Hospital Association. All racked up more than 7,500 lobby hours.
In all, state groups reported 432,255 hours of lobbying -- the equivalent of 100 people working full time over these two years.
Lobbying is just one way interest groups seek to influence the political process, Heck notes. They also spend money on elections. For instance, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent an estimated $4.7 million on issue ads during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Heck suggests that big electoral spenders, unions included, are helping their lobbyists gain access. He frames it as a question: "Are they protecting their lobbying efforts by investing in campaigns, or are they investing in campaigns so they can expand their lobbying influence?" It could be both.
Bill Lueders (email@example.com) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
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