Money & Politics Blog: What a $pectacular year it was!

For Wisconsin residents, 2011 was the kind of year that helps explain why the Chinese consider “May you live in interesting times” to be a curse. Amid all of the hubbub and strife, many of us found ourselves hoping that things would get a bit less interesting.

As Wisconsin was thrust into the national limelight, the intersection of money and politics became a busy place. Here are a few highlights:

• During the first half of 2011, about 700 Wisconsin lobbying groups collectively reported spending $23.9 million trying to influence state law or policy. This included $7.2 million by 25 labor unions, more than these same unions spent in the entire two-year session of 2009-10. The high union numbers included the costs of protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s changes to collective bargaining for public employees.

• State Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg both accepted public financing under the state’s new Impartial Justice Act, which limited their spending on this year’s race and subsequent recount to less than $1.3 million, well below the $6 million record set in 2008. But special-interest groups rushed in to fill the void with an estimated $4.5 million in independent and issue-ad spending, and the Legislature subsequently axed public financing for all state offices.

• In 2011, through Dec. 21, the state Government Accountability Board registered 100 new political action committees, which collect voluntary contributions from employees or members to fund political activities. That’s more than the number of new Wisconsin PACs formed in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 — combined. Many of the new PACs were affiliated with labor unions or recall efforts.

• A report issued in November by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a Montana-based nonpartisan watchdog, found that independent expenditures by outside groups topped spending by candidates in four key Wisconsin state Senate races last year. This does not include spending on so-called issue ads, which is unreported.

• In the nine state Senate recall elections this summer, special interest groups making independent expenditures or running issue ads outspent the candidates and their political committees nearly four to one. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan elections watchdog, estimated total spending of $43.9 million; that translates to about $63 spent for each of the nearly 700,000 votes cast in the elections, primaries included.

• Kantar Media CMAG, an ad-tracking group, found that 95 percent of the nearly $12 million spent this summer on recall-related ads in four major Wisconsin television markets went for negative messages. “I’ve never seen an ad campaign more negative,” CMAG president Ken Goldstein, a former UW-Madison political science professor, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. For the record, 99 percent of ads from Democrats and their supporters were negative, compared to 89 percent from the Republican side.

• So far this year, through Dec. 10, Walker has raised $7.6 million in campaign cash, of which $3.2 million came from out of state. That’s 42 percent of the total, compared to the 8 percent Walker raised from out of state last year. The two largest pro-recall groups, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and United Wisconsin, collectively raised $3.4 million during this same period. Most of United Wisconsin’s money came from state residents. But since July 1, about half the individual donations to the state Democratic Party came from outside Wisconsin.

• According to GAB records, Walker received 686 donations of $1,000 or more, compared to just 71 such donations to the two pro-recall groups. Walker’s total also included about $800,000 from 21 donors in excess of the usual $10,000 individual contribution limit, which does not apply to recalls.

• Election watchers are predicting knockout spending should a recall election for governor and lieutenant governor occur, with estimates running as high as $100 million. Holy moly.

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.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.