February 14, 2017
Until the drastic rewrite of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law in November 2015, it was illegal for farms or other corporations to give money directly to legislative campaign committees. But the new law allows them to give up to $12,000 in a so-called segregated account, which isn’t supposed to go toward electing specific candidates.
During the second half of 2016, several large potato, vegetable and cranberry farms made corporate contributions totaling $56,250 to the four legislative campaign committees, which are used by legislative leaders to milk special interests for campaign cash to spend on elections. Those contributions included:
$28,000 to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee;
$21,200 to the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate;
$4,950 to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee;
$2,100 to the State Senate Democratic Committee.
Several of the owners and employees of these farms also gave personal donations to the legislative campaign committees, including $27,200 to the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate and $12,900 to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee. The two Democratic legislative campaign committees received a combined total of $4,900 from large farm owners or employees.
Last month, GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, said he wants to approve a bill that would let high-capacity well owners repair or replace existing wells without a permit.
A review of the individual and business contributions to the legislative fundraising committees and legislators shows:
- Most of the contributions, about $133,750, went to Republican lawmakers, and $12,450 went to Democrats. Republicans control the Assembly and Senate by margins of 64-35 and 20-13, respectively;
- Most of these contributions, about $106,350, were also made during the last six months of 2016 after the GOP-controlled legislature failed to pass bills last spring aimed at loosening rules for controversial high-capacity wells;
- Nine officers and board members of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, their families, workers and businesses made about $78,500 in contributions to legislators and legislative fundraising committees;
- In addition to campaign contributions from its officers and board, the Vegetable Growers Association spent about $183,600 during the 2015-16 legislative session lobbying on high-capacity well, groundwater, wetlands, shore land zoning and other measures.
Topping the list of contributors to legislators and legislative fundraising committees were:
- The Wysocki family, of Bancroft, their businesses and employees, $38,800;
- Jeremie Pavelski, of Wisconsin Rapids, co-owner of Heartland Farms, $23,625;
- James Mortenson, of Wisconsin Rapids, and Mortenson Brothers Farms, $17,750.
The farms want looser rules governing controversial high-capacity wells and groundwater that already allow them to draw 100,000 gallons of water a day for irrigation. But as the number of large farms has grown, the huge volume of water drawn by high-capacity wells has become a major concern, as rivers and streams throughout Wisconsin shrink or dry up during the summer.