Road Fund Gets Concrete Protection From Special Interests

January 23, 2013

Madison – Powerful special interests that back a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent state policymakers from raiding the transportation fund contributed $5.2 million to past and current legislators between 2010 and mid-2012, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

The proposal is a rare constitutional budget protection for a particular industry that no others enjoy.

Road building, transportation, construction, business, manufacturing, real estate, tourism, natural resources and some labor interests (Table 1) support the proposed amendment because the fund pays for transportation projects and services those industries build or utilize like new major highways and road maintenance. The multi-billion dollar transportation fund gets most of its money from gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees paid by drivers.

No special interests or individuals lobbied against the proposal or opposed it at the single public hearing it had in 2011.

Meanwhile, state lobbying records show about two dozen trade organizations and companies support the amendment, including the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute, Aggregate Producers of Wisconsin, Transportation Development Association, Wisconsin Grocers Association, Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association and the Wisconsin Housing Alliance, among others.

The amendment also drew support from three labor unions – the Wisconsin Laborers District Council, Operating Engineers Local 139 and the Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters – which gave legislators $113,026 probably because many of their members work in the road building industry.

A proposed constitutional amendment requires approval by two successive legislatures – in this case the previous 2011-12 legislature and the newly elected 2013-14 legislature – and approval by voters in a statewide referendum. If approved again by the legislature in the coming weeks the proposal would go to voters in November 2014.

Many of the past and present legislators (Table 2) who received the largest amounts of campaign cash from special interests that back the proposed amendment were involved in the 2011 and 2012 Senate recall elections spurred by their support of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s successful plan to restrict public employee collective bargaining rights. Senate recall candidates raised and spent record amounts in the 13 Senate recall races where candidates and outside special interest groups spent an estimated $50.7 million. Four legislative campaign committees used by Democratic and Republican Assembly and Senate leaders to raise money from special interests to use during elections also received substantial campaign contributions from pro-amendment special interests led by the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate which accepted $307,285.

Walker, who received $10.8 million from the same interests from 2010 through April 23, 2012, cannot approve or veto proposed constitutional amendments. Walker’s first state budget pulled more than $335 million from the state general fund and other funds used to pay for education, health care and social programs in order to fund transportation projects even though he criticized former Democratic Governor James Doyle for raiding the transportation fund in order to pay for non-transportation programs.

The problem is the proposed constitutional amendment doesn’t solve the transportation fund’s long-term financial woes and ability to pay for new transportation projects and maintenance. The plan is a classic example of how powerful special interests distort the state’s political and policy debate on important issues and real solutions to problems because it’s something they want done and legislators are responding because they raise a lot of money from those donors.

The transportation fund’s two largest sources of revenue – vehicle registration fees and the gasoline tax – have been declining for years because of a poor economy that has reduced new car purchases and higher gas prices and greater fuel efficiency that have cut the amount people drive and the gasoline they use.

A commission Walker created to study ways to pay for the state’s transportation system recommends legislators and the governor approve a five-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase, a new mileage-based registration fee and a higher driver’s license fee, among other things which would cost the average Wisconsin driver $120 per vehicle per year.

However, Walker, who is expected to introduce his proposed 2013-15 state budget in February, appeared to rule out tax and fee increases to pay for transportation costs in a recent interview and hinted he may raid the state’s general fund for more money to pay for road building.

The proposed transportation amendment voters will consider was developed off a proposal by a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The conservative, pro-business organization marries powerful corporate interests that are also large campaign contributors with state legislators around the country to design model legislation on economic and social issues like voter ID and stand-your-ground gun laws that are later introduced in state legislatures.

Table 1
Contributions To Legislative Candidates From Special Interests
That Support A Proposed Transportation Fund Protection Amendment
2010 – June 2012

Group Amount
Manufacturing $1,134,910
Business $838,983
Construction $835,919
Tourism $598,060
Real Estate $545,278
Transportation $423,176
Natural Resources $382,665
Road Construction $310,255
Labor* $113,026
TOTAL $5,182,272

*Total represents contributions from three labor unions that support the amendment.

Table 2
Top Recipients* Of Campaign Contributions From Special Interests
That Support a Proposed Transportation Fund Protection Amendment
2010 – June 2012

Legislator/Committee Office Party Amount
Alberta Darling S08 R $445,747
Committee to Elect a Republican Senate S R $307,285
Dan Kapanke S32 R $296,787
Scott Fitzgerald S13 R $256,849
Van Wanggaard S21 R $255,077
Randy Hopper S18 R $185,506
Sheila Harsdorf S10 R $162,185
Terry Moulton S23 R $150,756
Republican Assembly Campaign Committee A R $133,780
State Senate Democratic Committee S D $132,556
Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee A D $123,883
Pam Galloway S29 R $108,046
Leah Vukmir S05 R $100,168
Jerry Petrowski S29 R $98,688
Robin Vos A63 R $86,572
Tom Tiffany S12 R $82,150
Luther Olsen S14 R $80,747
Sandy Pasch A10 D $75,470
Robert Cowles S02 R $58,903
Roger Rivard A75 R $58,078
Howard Marklein A51 R $55,786
Glenn Grothman S20 R $50,690
Frank Lasee S01 R $50,363

*Table represents legislators and committees who received $50,000 or more from special interests.