Money & Politics Blog: Insurance agents get back in the game

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

During the first six months of this year, the Independent Insurance Agents of Wisconsin reported spending $36,377 on lobbying, twice as much as during the entire previous two-year period. Much of its effort was in support of a bill to tweak insurance coverage limits and policy provisions.

“We were more active than we’ve ever been because of that issue,” says Matthew Banaszynski, vice president of IIAW, which represents 4,500 workers at more than 500 independent insurance agencies and branches.

Banaszynski says things have tapered off since then, but he expects the association to maintain a higher level of political engagement than in the past. It has a range of ongoing concerns, such as making sure the role of agents is not unduly diminished in the health-insurance exchanges now being set up by the state.

“Now more than ever, we see a lot of big issues affecting our industry and our members,” says Banaszynski, one of IIAW’s two registered lobbyists. “We need to do more to protect their interests. We want to be more proactive than reactive.”

That’s why the association recently revived Insuring Wisconsin, a political action committee designed to deliver monetary contributions to candidates “who share our business philosophies.” These will be selected by the association’s steering committee.

In its appeal to members, IIAW calls these contributions “an investment in your agency and your future.” It spells out the logic behind this approach:

“Pooling our contributions results in sizable contributions that give our association and its members increased visibility. Legislators will remember who we are and take the time to listen to our concerns.”

Contributors of up to $250 a year get a lapel pin and legislative directory. Those who give more are promised invitations to “exclusive events with important opinion leaders and elected officials.”

Insuring Wisconsin is not a new PAC. It has been registered with the state since 1978, but Banaszynski says it has been inactive since the early 1990s. In late September it filed notice with the state Government Accountability Board that it was getting back in the game.

This is part of a larger trend. So far this year, 90 new PACs have been created, about the same number as during the previous four years combined. There are now 596 current active PACs in Wisconsin, compared to 188 conduits, which function a bit differently.

Conduits also bundle contributions but allow individual donors to more precisely direct where their money goes. PACs let the group make centralized decisions about whom to fund.

Banaszynski agrees there’s a benefit to central control but says the main reason his association opted for a PAC rather than a conduit is that it is easier to administer.

The IIAW’s decision to ramp up its involvement in political campaigns has stirred some dissent.

“I’m very disturbed about the influence of money on politics in general,” says one association member, who asked not to be named to protect professional relationships. “Pouring money into the political process tends to drown out the voice of the average voter.” The member also suspects that Insuring Wisconsin will give mainly to Republicans, as do affiliated groups at the national level.

Banaszynski says he respects this member’s perspective “just as much as I respect the agents who would like to have a PAC.” He notes that participation is voluntary and vows to keep the focus on issues, not partisan politics.

“The PAC is not meant to polarize or disenfranchise,” he insists.

In the month since the PAC was revived, Banaszynski says about 25 to 30 agents have signed on to contribute, not an overwhelming number. “My guys are small business owners and they’re independent,” he explains.

Banaszynski knows that, to be a success, Insuring Wisconsin will have to attract more support.

“I don’t anticipate it being a monster PAC,” he says. But he does hope that, over time, it will “at least have enough that we can be relevant at some level.”

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

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