Influence Peddler of the Month

Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association

March 1, 2017

Potatoes

This group lobbies on agriculture, environmental, tax, and other state policy to benefit potato and vegetable growers, including a key industry goal to loosen regulations on controversial high-capacity wells.

And like other effective lobbying and special interest groups, the Potato and Vegetable Growers also funnels campaign contributions to legislative and state candidates through a legal check-bundling outfit known as a conduit.

Last year, the group sharply increased its lobby spending and contribution activity to push the GOP-controlled legislature to take up proposals that affect high-capacity wells and other water-use issues. And shortly after the latest 2017-18 legislative session got underway, the group told its members in an email that it wants to “head off local activist pressure on county and town boards to prevent them from passing irrational resolutions or wiring letters to the legislature which could have a negative impact on our legislation efforts.”

But it appears the money and lobbying worked. Late last month, GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, introduced a bill that would let high-capacity well owners repair, replace, and transfer existing wells in land sales to new owners without a permit.

Large potato and vegetable growers doled out about $152,000 in individual and corporate campaign contributions to all legislative and statewide officeholders and candidates in 2016. Most of those contributions were made during the last six months of 2016, and more than half, about $78,500, came from nine of the Potato and Vegetable Growers Association’s officers and board of directors.

Most of the contributions to current legislators, about $126,300, went to Republicans, and $10,250 went to Democrats. Republicans control the Assembly and Senate by margins of 64-35 and 20-13, respectively.

Most of the corporate and individual contributions were targeted at the legislature’s four Democratic and Republican fundraising committees, which are used by legislative leaders to milk special interests for cash to spend on elections. Those corporate and individual contributions to the legislative fundraising committees totaled:

$46,300 to the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate;

$35,550 to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee;

$4,900 to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee;

$4,850 to the State Senate Democratic Committee.

In addition to the $46,300 that the growers gave the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, which is controlled by Fitzgerald, the GOP majority leader also received $4,000 in individual contributions through the Vegetable Growers conduit.

During the 2015-16 legislative session, the association ramped up its lobby spending to about $183,600, compared to about $145,000 in 2013-14, and less than $100,000 in each of the 2009-10 and 2007-08 legislative sessions. The group spent 80 percent of its time and resources during the first six months of 2016 on four bills to restrict state regulation of high-capacity wells. Two of the measures backed by big business and agriculture interests would have allowed current high-capacity well owners to repair, replace, or move their wells without state review and approval. Two other proposals spelled out conditions the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must follow to approve high-capacity wells.

None of those bills were approved by the full legislature in 2016. But Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a legal opinion last May that said the DNR exceeded its authority when it considered the cumulative effect that existing high-capacity wells have on lakes, rivers and groundwater when it considered whether to approve applications for new wells. Schimel’s opinion may mean bills to restrict DNR regulation of high-capacity wells are now no longer needed.

High-capacity wells pump 100,000 gallons or more of water per day, and are mostly used by large vegetable growers, so-called factory farms, food processors and frac sand mining and processing operations. Environmentalists and other critics say high-capacity wells can deplete groundwater, rivers, lakes and streams. In recent years, rivers and streams throughout Wisconsin have been shrinking or drying up during the summer.

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