Gagging Democracy

Historically, both Democratic and Republican legislators and governors publicly embrace local control. But adhering to that pledge usually depends on the issue and the wealthy special interests and campaign contributors that want to change local laws for their own gain.

Gagging Democracy

How Local Voices Are Silenced by Wealthy Campaign Contributors

August 4, 2005


Local control – letting locally elected government officials enact laws that best fit their constituents’ needs – is a spouse often cheated on by state elected officials.

In recent years several state proposals have been introduced – and most signed into law –to prevent communities from setting their own minimum wage, regulating smoking in taverns and eateries, confiscating illegal video gambling machines in bars, turning down big utility projects, determining how municipally owned cable television operations are paid for and setting their school start dates.

Supporters of preempting local laws argue the Legislature represents people and only interferes when local laws are unfair or vary so much from community to community that they confuse citizens and hurt businesses.

Opponents of state preemption claim most local ordinances have been publicly vetted and scrutinized to gauge what people think, or put to referendums to allow local voters to act.

This report, “Gagging Democracy,” highlights state preemption proposals where campaign contributions are swaying legislators and the governor to favor the wishes of their special interest pay masters rather than the needs of communities.


  • Collectively, nine special interest groups and two unions supported bills to preempt local laws. These special interests have given $8.1 million in campaign contributions to current legislators, 6.9 times more than the $1.17 million collectively contributed to legislators by the five special interest groups and a health clinic that opposed the bills.
  • Special interests that favored preemption gave Republican legislators who control the Assembly and the Senate 12.7 times more in campaign contributions than the opponents of preemption proposals – $6.51 million versus $511,282.
  • Special interests that favored preemption proposals have contributed $2.53 million to Democratic Governor Jim Doyle – 2.2 times more than the $1.15 million contributed to the governor by the bills’ opponents. Doyle has signed into law at least four preemption measures since taking office in 2002.

2005-07 Legislative Session Preemption Proposals

No Smoking. . . Sometimes

Key players in Wisconsin’s tourism industry and beer and liquor distributors, which have contributed $1.45 million to legislators’ campaigns, are pushing for a statewide smoking ban that would prohibit communities from enacting stricter bans. It would also nullify local bans already passed by La Crosse County and 20 communities, including Appleton, Madison, Oshkosh, Eau Claire and Kenosha. Critics say the proposed statewide ban is not a ban because it exempts all bowling alleys and taverns, and restaurants with less than a 50-person capacity.

The proposal, Assembly Bill 414, is backed by tavern, restaurant, hotel, motel, amusement and recreation center interests and beer and liquor distributors. The measure is opposed by local governments, doctors, anti-smoking organizations and the Marshfield Clinic which have given $620,105 to legislators since 1993.

The measure was sponsored by Republican Senator Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Republican Representative Jeff Fitzgerald. Scott Fitzgerald has accepted $9,674 from restaurant and tavern owners and $13,208 from beer and liquor distributors – two of his largest categorical special-interest group contributors. Jeff Fitzgerald has accepted $4,434 from bar and restaurant owners and $6,675 from beer and liquor distributors – two of his largest categorical special interest contributors.

The Assembly, which is controlled by Republicans 60-39, approved the bill on a bipartisan 48-45 vote.

Despite the close vote, total campaign contributions from tourism interests and beer and liquor distributors to those who voted “aye” and “nay” for the bill were far from even (Chart 1). The 48 legislators who voted for the bill have received $597,306 in contributions – 2.6 times more than the $232,805 in contributions to the 45 legislators who voted against the bill. The proposal awaits action in the Senate.

Chart 1

Chart 1: Campaign Contributions from Supporters of Assembly Bill 414

During the last legislative session, the tavern industry scored a major policy victory when it got legislators and Doyle to accept a provision in the 2003-05 state budget that renders the prohibition on illegal video gambling in taverns virtually meaningless. The provision prohibits local police and sheriff’s departments and the state Justice Department from confiscating the machines and charging violators when an establishment has five or fewer machines. The Department of Revenue handles those cases, leaving nine state alcohol and tobacco agents to oversee video gambling activities in the state’s 10,000 taverns.

Minimum Wage Maneuvers

Powerful business, manufacturing, tourism and oil and gas interests used the clout that $5.19 million in campaign contributions have gotten them to persuade the Legislature and Doyle to pass a law that forbids communities from setting their own hourly minimum wage. Special interests sought to preempt communities from setting their own minimum wage after legislative Republicans blocked the governor’s attempt to increase the statewide minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.50 per hour, and Milwaukee, La Crosse and Madison approved higher local minimum wages.

The preemption proposal, Assembly Bill 49, was passed on a 58-37 party line vote in the Assembly and a near 20-13 party line vote in the Senate. The interests that supported the bill made $3.14 million, or 79 percent, of their legislative campaign contributions to Assembly and Senate Republicans. In contrast, local governments and unions which opposed the measure contributed $580,346 to legislators, but only $124,396 or 21 percent of their contributions went to majority Republicans (Chart 2). Supporters of the law contributed 25 times more in campaign contributions to legislative Republicans than opponents of preemption.

Chart 2

Chart 2: Campaign Contributions to Legislative Republicans from Supporters and Opponents of Preempting Minimum Wage Laws

Doyle has accepted $1.2 million since 1993 from special interests who support the law, including $1.12 million, or 93 percent, since June 2000 when he announced he would run for the Democratic nomination for governor. By contrast labor unions and local officials opposed to the law have contributed a substantially smaller $234,288 to Doyle’s campaign since June 2000.

Many of these same special interests successfully sought a state law at the expense of local control in 1999 that translated into a $66 million boost for the tourism industry, according to a state study. Then-Republican Governor Tommy Thompson approved a 1999-2001 state budget that requires public schools to start after September 1. The requirement had been long sought by the tourism industry so it could have an adequate supply of teenaged workers and increase tourism during the Labor Day holiday weekend.

Utility Land Grab

Utility, business, manufacturing, restaurant and transportation interests and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2150 and the Operating Engineers Local 139 pushed a bill into law that requires local governments to sell public land to utilities for transmission line projects.

The measure, Assembly Bill 437, arose out of the Douglas County Board’s refusal to let American Transmission Company use county land for part of its $420 million transmission line from Duluth, Minnesota to Wausau.

The bill was approved 61-35 in the Assembly and 27-6 in the Senate in June and signed by Doyle on July 21. Special interests that favor the bill have contributed $4.43 million to legislators, including $3.55 million, or 80 percent, of those contributions to majority Republican legislators between 1993 and 2004.

Doyle signed the bill into law only a few months after he received $6,500 in three separate contributions from American Transmission Company executives in January, February and June 2005.

Utilities have been one of Doyle’s fastest and most generous special interest friends. The industry contributed a total of $8,661 to Doyle between 1993 and 2001 when he was attorney general. It increased its contributions 1,986 percent to $180,663 (Chart 3) from 2002 – the year he successfully ran for governor – through 2004.

Chart 3

Chart 3: Utility Industry Contributions to Governor Jim Doyle

In late 2004, WDC revealed that American Transmission Company, Wisconsin Energy and Wisconsin Public Service Corporation executives contributed $50,660 to Doyle’s campaign between October 2002 and June 2004. Doyle accepted the contributions shortly before and after the state approved ATC’s transmission line project and plans by the other two utilities to build controversial coal plants near Wausau and Oak Creek .

 Billboard Protection Plan

Wisconsin ’s billboard industry kicked off its annual attempt to prevent state agencies or local governments from requiring billboard owners to remove old and deteriorating signs.

There has been no action on the measures – Senate Bill 89 and Assembly Bill 155 – by the Assembly or the Senate. The bills were sponsored mostly by Republicans and Assembly Bill 155 was approved on a 4-2 party line vote by a legislative committee.

Supporters include business, manufacturing, realtor, tourism, construction, automobile dealer and agricultural equipment interests which contributed $6.83 million to legislators including $5.56 million, or 82 percent, to Republican legislators. In contrast, local governments and environmental groups, which oppose the measures, have contributed only $46,930 to legislators, including $19,558 to GOP legislators.

The outdoor advertising industry’s campaign to weaken billboard regulations coincides with a substantial increase in targeted campaign contributions to the governor, and Senate and Assembly legislative leaders because these policymakers decide which proposals are approved or defeated. The industry contributed $12,785 to Thompson and legislative leaders from 1993 through 2000 (Chart 4). But from 2001 through 2004 this special interest group more than tripled its contributions, giving former Republican Governor Scott McCallum, Doyle and legislative leaders $43,875.

Chart 4

Chart 4: Contributions from the Bill Board Industry to the Governor and Legislative Leaders

Prior to 2001, billboard owners had made no contributions to Doyle. From 2001 through 2004, Doyle received $14,450 from the industry.

The industry’s contributions in recent years to all candidates for legislative and statewide office also spiked. Billboard owners contributed $56,117 to all candidates from 1993 through 2000, and $67,774 in half as much time from 2001 through 2004.


Gagging Democracy” has shown a link between large campaign contributions and the success wealthy special interests have in permanently stifling local laws that hurt their pocketbooks.

To serve their rich campaign contributors, state policymakers concoct proposals that block communities from tailoring laws that best fit the needs or wishes of local citizens. The proposals highlighted in this report affect individuals of all ages and economic status because they dictate how a community may or may not regulate salaries, recreational venues, schools and land use activities.

Finally, both Democrats and Republicans tout an allegiance to local control but they forget their pledges when they get a call from wealthy special interests that need help bridling communities.

Press Release