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Wisconsin Senate

Lobbyists spent nearly $18 million to court lawmakers and agency officials during the first budget season under a new Democratic governor, a slight decline from the last budget crafted under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

But the major players remain mostly unchanged, with six of the top 10 lobbying groups this year also making it into the top 10 two years ago during the last budget battle, according to preliminary records compiled by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission. The Wisconsin State Journal reviewed the total lobbying effort in the first six months of 2019 compared to the first six months of 2017.

Total spending from more than 700 potential lobbying groups decreased by more than $1 million so far this year, although many of the biggest movers and shakers spent just about as much, if not more, than the first six months of the last budget cycle. While hundreds of groups reported to the Ethics Commission, many recorded little to no lobbying activity.

The spending compiled by the Ethics Commission includes lobbying on both budget and non-budget items, although lawmakers and lobbyists typically spend more time on the budget than other legislation during the first six months of the year.

Gov. Tony Evers introduced the budget Feb. 28 and signed it July 3.

The figures account for the salaries and benefits of lobbyists and other employees for their time spent directly communicating with lawmakers or other state officials as well as time spent preparing for such communication. They also account for money spent on research, advocacy related to legislation they’re seeking to influence and overhead, such as rent or supplies, related to their lobbying efforts.

Interests in health care, manufacturing, real estate, insurance and transportation were all heavily represented in the halls of the state Capitol in 2019. The Wisconsin Hospital Association spent the most — $430,138 on 2,197 hours, or 92 full days — attempting to influence lawmakers, state agencies or other government officials.

That’s about $100,000 more than the $328,460 it spent on lobbying in the first six months of 2017.

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The top 10 lobbying groups are:

  • Wisconsin Hospital Association: $430,138
  • Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce: $414,184
  • Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin: $384,479
  • Wisconsin Realtors Association: $318,674
  • Wisconsin Counties Association: $249,324
  • Wisconsin Credit Union League: $206,111
  • Wisconsin Insurance Alliance: $185,957
  • State Bar of Wisconsin: $175,576
  • Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association: $151,334
  • Wisconsin Federation of Independent Business: $150,864

Still, the first six months of each budget year don’t tell the full story. That’s because in 2017, the budget battle, even with Republicans controlling the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, dragged on until late September, in part due to a skirmish between the Assembly and three Republicans in the Senate. It was the latest budget signing in a decade. In the second half of that year, lobbying groups spent another $18.5 million, although that spending includes lobbying on budget and non-budget items.

The spending from the Wisconsin Hospital Association, which represents many of the state’s hospitals and health systems, comes after Evers and Democrats in the Legislature proposed accepting federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid program to cover about 82,000 more adults who earn up to 133% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, the poverty level is an annual income of $25,750. Legislative Republicans staunchly opposed the idea and removed it from consideration.

Wisconsin Hospital Association president and CEO Eric Borgerding said the 2019 budget was “inordinately intense” given the differences between Evers and the Republican Legislature on Medicaid expansion. Borgerding said association lobbyists spent their time bridging those differences while pushing for the several initiatives in the Medicaid budget that had bipartisan support.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the powerful conservative business lobby, spent $414,184 to influence legislation so far this year. WMC spokesman Scott Manley said under the new Democratic governor, the organization has spent more time pushing against Evers’ proposals, such as one to roll back the manufacturing and agriculture tax credit to help pay for a middle class tax cut. The GOP Legislature rejected the plan.

Compared to 2017, WMC also spent less time advocating for items outside the budget process. Manley said the group’s lobbying effort hasn’t changed much under a Democratic governor given the group’s principles remain unchanged.

“I wouldn’t say that we have stopped advocating for certain policies, but we’ve tempered expectations,” Manley said.

For example, Manley understands the chance of lowering the state’s income tax — a goal for WMC — is far less likely.

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