Budget Process Shows That State Government Is For Sale

by Gail Shea, Executive Director, 1996-2000

July 22, 1999

The making of a state budget is not a pretty sight. Never has been. There’s always been some horse trading. There’s always been pork. If it’s for our area, it’s the good stuff. If it’s for someone else, it’s bad pork.

Having said that, it’s worse now. The budget is uglier. The process used to construct it has degenerated. Even the pork is a different cut. You don’t have to believe the budget used to be pristine or the budget process used to be saintly to notice a big change.

Budgets used to be designed to make the folks back home happy. Now the budget is more aimed to please campaign contributors. The pork used to be for voting constituents. Now more and more it feeds the cash constituents.

A case in point is an obscure provision giving special treatment to a furniture maker in the little town of Arcadia. Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. wants to expand their plant on up to 15 acres of wetlands. The Department of Natural Resources rejected the firm’s plan to build on the protected land, so Governor Thompson gave Ashley Furniture the go-ahead in his proposed budget.

What does this have to do with state taxes and spending, you ask? Not a thing. So what gives? Ashley Furniture executives – to the tune of over $30,000 to the governor’s campaign fund. When the legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee caught wind of this cozy arrangement, it was stripped from the budget. But in the 11th hour, legislative leaders snuck the Ashley exemption back in.

Why? You guessed it, Ashley executives not only gave generously to the governor, they contributed thousands more to key legislators. If the Ashley exemption is still there when the smoke clears, most people won’t notice. But it’s a classic example of how special interest donors get rewarded. The budget is full of such items.

Another example is the much-publicized and intensely lobbied liquor distributorship amendment. This budget provision would make it more difficult for liquor distillers to switch distributors. What on earth does this have to do with state taxes and spending? Again, not a thing. Yet this special interest plum virtually guarantees a monopoly to a handful of liquor wholesalers who, not coincidentally, have made tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations, including thousands in soft money contributions to an out-of-state committee that bankrolls campaign activities here in Wisconsin.

A similar policy actually passed in Illinois. The ink was barely dry when distributors announced plans to raise their prices, backing down only after threats that the law would be repealed. But what the wholesaler protection measure might mean to those sitting on the barstools hasn't been an important consideration even for opponents of the idea. They've fretted about how it could affect Miller Brewing Company, another huge political donor. The key to the final deal was to find a way to give the liquor distributors their monopoly without screwing up Miller’s distribution system. Consumers' interests weren't part of the equation.

The state budget has never been an elegant creature. But it is intolerably ugly now. It’s not about bringing home the bacon to your hometown anymore. Now it’s about rewarding a few big contributors, and everyone knows it. Senate Republican leader Mike Ellis was even moved to say what everyone close to the process is thinking: "The budget we’re debating right now is literally for sale."

If those chilling words don’t stir us all to demand campaign finance reforms that will clean up the system, I don’t know what will.