Friday, August 05, 2005

If You Add Up All The Special Interests, Do They Equal The Public Interest?

More than a half-million people in Wisconsin have no health insurance and hundreds of thousands more are a pink slip away from being unable to take their kids to the doctor. State school funding policies are such a disaster that one school district recently declared bankruptcy and voted to shut down. Every lake in Wisconsin is contaminated with mercury and there have been repeated air quality alerts this summer.

You'd think that maybe the Legislature and the more than 650 advocacy groups supposedly trying to influence lawmakers on behalf of the people of our state would be focused on issues like health care reform, school finance, and air and water pollution.

Guess again.

Reports filed with the state Ethics Board show lobbying groups spent a record $16.2 million in the first half of the year trying to influence public officials. Lobbyists spent 145,000 hours twisting arms and scratching backs, the equivalent of more than 137 eight-hour days for every state legislator. But they didn't spend it pushing for universal health care coverage or a revamped school funding system or more rigorous environmental protection.

Aside from the state budget, which lobbyists spent 42,900 hours trying to shape, the number one issue was . . . drumroll, please . . . a decades-old dispute between insurance companies and the paper industry. Nearly 3,400 hours were devoted to lobbying on Assembly Bill 222, legislation requiring insurers to give the paper mills money from policies up front and then fight among themselves in court over the exact amount each owes to clean up PCBs dumped in the Fox River.

Another of the 10 most heavily lobbied bills was one of the state preemption bills we highlighted in our "Gagging Democracy" report detailing how state legislators are overruling actions by locally elected officials to benefit big campaign contributors. Lobbyists spent 835 hours bending legislators' ears about Assembly Bill 414, which preempts local ordinances banning smoking in restaurants and bars.

Overall, the biggest spender on lobbying was the big business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which threw $545,408 at influence peddling during the six-month period. WMC was followed by Wisconsin Hospital Association, Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, Wisconsin Education Association Council and paper company Georgia-Pacific Corporation.

Georgia-Pacific spent $337,547 lobbying during the first half of this year, most of it on the insurance bill (AB 222). This compares to the $6,995 the company spent on lobbying during the first six months of 2003. Similarly, the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance poured $400,697 into its lobbying effort during the past six months, compared to the $55,842 it spent during the first half of 2003.

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