Spending by special interest groups influencing Wisconsin lawmakers is in the news again, with the latest figures showing that more than $58 million was spent on lobbying during the 2005-2006 legislative session, up nearly 20% over the prior session.
News reports that blandly identify which interest groups spent the most leave casual readers, viewers and listeners wondering why they should care. Pointing out that they are ultimately picking up the tab might do the trick caring-wise. The $58 million and then some ends up being passed along to taxpayers without $200-an-hour lobbyists working for them when state officials hand out special interest tax breaks or budget pork or no-bid contracts.
In the press advisory reporting the record-breaking spending on influence peddling, the state Ethics Board tried reassuring citizens that the store is being minded. Ethics Board director Roth Judd took pains to remind us that "Wisconsin leads the nation in forbidding special interest groups from providing favors to elected officials."
Two pertinent facts make such happy talk ring just a bit hollow. First, Judd evidently does not consider the campaign contributions special interest groups can legally shower on lawmakers at any time – even while the state budget is being crafted, for crying out loud – a favor to those elected officials. Which begs the question: Exactly what kind of favor is more valuable to a politician these days than a campaign donation? Secondly, even if you overlook all that campaign money and buy what Judd is saying about Wisconsin forbidding interest groups from providing favors to elected officials, there's nothing preventing the elected officials from providing favors to the interest groups. It's that part of the transaction that hits the average taxpayer squarely in the pocketbook.
The other painfully apparent part of the story that is overlooked in the media accounts of lobbying spending is how the campaign donations go hand in hand with the tens of millions spent by the lobbying industry. Elected officials are addicted to the contributions from the special interests that pay all the hired guns to work the halls of the Capitol. Those campaign contributions are the reason elected officials have to listen to the lobbyists. If we didn't have an utterly broken campaign finance system and candidates didn't have to rely on special interest money to get elected and re-elected, the lobbying groups wouldn't be spending $58 million. They'd be wasting their money if they did.