Time and gain, state officials make policy favoring big givers
by Mike McCabe, Executive Director
November 7, 2005
Critics are calling the latest scandal-in-the-making "travelgate." The top-ranked bidder for a state travel contract was passed over in favor of another contractor whose executives made more than $20,000 in campaign donations to Gov. Jim Doyle’s reelection campaign just before and just after landing the contract.
The governor says the donations "in no way influenced the decision." Federal, state and county law enforcement officials aren't so sure. They're investigating whether the Doyle administration tampered with the bid evaluations.
The curious timing of the donations would be easier to overlook if it weren't for the fact that an administration official, Georgia Thompson, is said to have told members of the evaluation committee that their initial ranking of the bidders would not "fly politically" and urged them to change their scores.
At best, the circumstances surrounding this comparatively small state contract – about $750,000 over three years – makes the Doyle administration look shady. At worst, we’re dealing with more of the pay-to-play criminality the corrupt Capitol culture is spawning.
There’s no denying an unmistakable pattern has emerged.
Doyle recently received nearly $6,000 from SBC Communications executives in Texas, and SBC’s political action committee now tops the list of PAC donors to the governor’s reelection campaign. The company landed a $116 million state contract when the governor had a sudden change of heart on how to handle a new video and data network for the state and University of Wisconsin System.
After issuing the standard denial of any connection between the contributions and the policy shift, the governor’s campaign manager offered an alternative explanation: People from outside Wisconsin are giving Doyle money because he has developed a national reputation on stem cell research.
Yep, that’s gotta be it. Phone company bigwigs love stem cell research.
Then there’s the 17-fold increase in contributions to Doyle from utility executives and American Transmission Co officials. Could it be connected to the governor’s approval of legislation forcing communities to sell land to utilities for power line projects, overruling an action by the Douglas County Board to prohibit the use of public land for this purpose?
And could there be a connection to the Doyle-controlled Public Service Commission’s practice of letting utilities write orders increasing electric rates without letting ratepayer-advocates in on the secret? That has triggered an investigation, too.
It’s not just Doyle who mines the connection between policy-making and campaign contributions. Nor is it, for that matter, confined to former state Senators – and now convicted felons – Gary George, Chuck Chvala and Brian Burke. . . and to state Reps. Scott Jensen and Steve Foti, who still await their fate on corruption charges.
Nope, the campaign money chase and the corruption that comes with it are endemic to the Capitol. It’s business as usual in Wisconsin.
The bosses at the Capitol all deny it. They all parrot the party line that any appearance of a link between campaign donations and state actions is purely coincidental.
But who’s kidding who?
When my group, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, reported that legislators raised nearly $1.4 million in campaign donations while the state budget was being shaped, and more than half of the money went to five legislative leaders and four party committees they control, the director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate insisted: "There are no strings that are ever attached. There is no such thing as pay to play in this Legislature."
There’s a time when dishonesty and hypocrisy stop offending and start to amuse. That time has arrived in Wisconsin.
State lawmakers are pushing legislation to overrule local decisions on smoking in bars and restaurants. They've already blocked local living-wage ordinances passed in several communities. And they took away local control of school-start dates. Other "preemption" bills are in the works.
Time and again, locally elected representatives are responding to the wishes of voters and solving problems for their communities, only to have the state representatives of those very same voters reverse these local decisions.
What gives? It’s more a matter of who gives. Special interests favoring state preemption of local decisions have given 13 times more money to Republican legislators who control the Legislature than supporters of local control have given.
That’s what distinguishes locally elected officials from their counterparts at the Capitol. Unlike their local brethren, state lawmakers are more beholden to their cash constituents than their voting constituents.
Assembly Speaker John Gard is the poster boy for this addiction. Gard gets over 95% of his contributions from people who live outside his district.
The influence of special interest money leaves a trail in every corner of state government. We reviewed more than 5,100 state Commerce Department grants, low-interest loans and tax credits awarded between 1999 and September 2004 and found that recipients of state aid who did not make campaign contributions received awards averaging less than $130,000 while those who made donations received awards averaging more than $1 million.
Our research mirrored a 2003 University of Michigan study of construction and road-building contracts in Wisconsin showing donors to former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s campaign got contracts averaging $20 million while the average value of contracts awarded to non-contributors was $870,000.
For example, executives of a Fond du Lac construction company gave Thompson $37,000 in campaign donations in a single day. The contributions came within two weeks of the company, C.D. Smith Construction, getting a no-bid contract to build a $29.5 million prison from the State Building Commission, which Thompson chaired.
It doesn't matter if Tommy started it, or if Doyle is perfecting it. Pay to play will be here to stay as long as office seekers have little choice but to take out a second mortgage on their souls to seriously compete for voters' attention.
Other cases in point:
- Wisconsin’s Native American tribes made more than $1 million in soft-money contributions to gubernatorial candidate Jim Doyle’s successful campaign. Gov. Doyle in turn, presided over the largest expansion of gambling in the state’s history.
- Polluters gave four times as much to Doyle and Republican lawmakers than did opponents of an environmental deregulation bill dubbed the "Job Creation Act." The legislation was enacted with breathtaking speed.
- Road builders have made well over $2 million in campaign donations to top state officials in recent years and not only succeeded in protecting a self-escalating gasoline tax but also won $824 million in construction projects that the state Department of Transportation never asked for.
- The Oklahoma-based developer of a privately built prison near Stanley made $15,001 in timely campaign contributions and pumped another $125,000 into an "issue advocacy" group controlled by then Senate Democratic leader Chuck Chvala. Lawmakers decided to purchase the prison for $79.9 million despite the Corrections Department never requesting it. The prison then sat empty for a year and a half because the state could not afford to open it.
- Loans sharks (who prefer to call themselves "payday lenders") became the top source of out-of-state campaign donations to Wisconsin politicians, who then thanked the industry by repeatedly killing proposed legislation to limit the interest charged for payday loans. Left unregulated, the interest rates on these short-term loans often exceed 500% annually.
- Ashley Furniture executives contributed $11,550 – most of it to former Gov. Scott McCallum – and were exempted from environmental regulations, thus allowing the company to fill in wetlands to expand its plant.
- The New York-based Peoples Lottery Foundation made $5,000 in well-placed donations and got a change in state law allowing private companies to buy out the annuities lottery winners receive for a cut of the winnings.
- The 3M Corporation made a little over $7,300 in contributions during a past budget deliberation and got a tax exemption giving the company a $500,000 annual tax break.
- Bankers lavished over $11,000 in donations on a single state senator who then cast the deciding vote to kill a bill that would have prevented banks from charging consumer fees for using automated teller machines.