A legal opinion on whether the state's 127-year-old restriction on foreign land ownership can still be enforced poses a conflict of interest for Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and could reward one of his largest special interest supporters depending on his decision.
A legal opinion nixing the law would serve the real estate industry, a powerful special interest that stands to benefit from increased land sales, but cloaks its support for such a move by pitching the ban's demise as pro-jobs and pro-economic development. Since 2006 when Van Hollen was elected the real estate industry has contributed $209,965 in large individual and political action committee contributions to his campaigns. The real estate industry is Van Hollen's second largest special interest supporter, accounting for 10 percent of the $2.21 million in special interest campaign cash he has accepted.
An opinion that nixes the ban could also directly benefit Smithfield Foods, a giant U.S. pork producer with operations in Wisconsin that was purchased last fall by a Chinese company. Van Hollen also accepted campaign contributions from Smithfield general counsel James Nellen in 2005 and 2009 totaling $450.
A report by Reuters last year when the Smithfield deal was in the works noted foreign land ownership restrictions in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states could affect Smithfield's operations if the deal was approved. Some legal experts contend federal laws and international trade agreements may trump the state land restrictions, but others say these laws in Wisconsin and elsewhere could affect the company's business or draw lengthy legal challenges.
The effort to lift foreign land ownership restrictions was resurrected earlier this month when the Assembly Committee on Organization voted to seek Van Hollen's opinion on the law. The committee action follows a failed effort by Republican Governor Scott Walker to lift the cap in his 2013-15 state budget. No one was certain at the time - like now - why the proposal was pushed or who it benefits. Rumblings then suggested it would help out-of-state mining interests seeking to dig a massive open-pit iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. In the event Gogebic Taconite wanted out of the project it could sell its stake to a foreign interest hungry for steel production, like China.
But both Republican and Democratic legislators opposed the measure last year because of strong opposition in agricultural and rural areas over wealthy foreign interests buying huge tracts of prized Wisconsin farmland and threatening the dominance of the state's premiere industry and pricing out future generations of farm families.
Another question as the proposal makes its second round might be to ask Assembly Republicans why they think these sentiments have changed.