Money & Politics Blog: MapLight now tracking groups’ political contributions

Any candidate seeking contributions will tell you: No amount is too small to make a difference. But the more you give, individually or collectively, the more of a difference you can make. That’s why it makes sense to study contributions in search of larger patterns.

MapLight, a national nonpartisan research organization, recently launched a new feature that tracks campaign contributions by company for the U.S. Congress and two state legislatures, in California and Wisconsin.

For the Wisconsin data, go to and click on the folder for “Companies” -- a category broad enough to include interest groups like unions and professional associations. Up comes a list of the top 10 givers based on employee and political action committee contributions to successful state legislative candidates between Jan. 1, 2009 and June 30, 2011.

Leading the list is the University of Wisconsin, accounting for $120,459 in total contributions during this time. Contributors two through five are: Northwestern Mutual ($118,860), the United Association ($112,752), the National Education Association ($92,023) and Walmart ($74,175). You can click on the entity to find top recipients among current lawmakers.

The totals for United Association, a union representing plumbers, pipe fitters and associated trades, were obtained by tracking donations from the state’s seven affiliated locals.

MapLight, on request (it will run numbers for journalists for free), broke down these contributions in terms of party affiliation. Overall, 58 percent of the donations from the top 10 contributor groups went to Democrats, and 42 percent to Republicans. The most lopsided giver was the National Education Association, which gave nearly 98 percent of its donations to Democrats.

These numbers  show that, contrary to the spin favored by some partisans, neither major party dominates political giving. (In last summer’s state Senate recall elections, for instance, Democrats and their supporters outspent Republicans $23.4 million to $20.5 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.)

Of course, sometimes a person’s employer has little to do with his or her decision to donate to a campaign. Still, it’s useful to know how much companies or groups give collectively -- if only because it shows that employee donations are just part of a much larger whole.

Consider Wisconsin Energy Corp., pegged by MapLight as the sixth-highest giver to successful state legislative campaigns in the two-and-a-half year period ending on June 30, 2011, with $59,010 in donations. The Milwaukee-based utility currently has 10 registered lobbyists and has staked out positions on eight bills in the current legislative session, according to the state Governmental Accountability Board’s lobbying website. It reported spending $219,506 on lobbying in just the first sixth months of 2011.

And that’s just on the state level. The Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) has released a report that names Wisconsin Energy as one of 30 Fortune 500 companies which spent more on federal lobbying in the three-year period from 2008-10 than they did on federal income taxes.

According to this report, Wisconsin Energy (the only state-based company to make this list) spent $2.5 million on lobbying over this three-year period, while getting $85 million in tax rebates; during this period, according to WISPIRG, the company made more than $1.7 billion in profits.

Barry McNulty, a spokesman for Wisconsin Energy, doesn’t dispute the claimed rebate amounts and lobbying outlays but insists there is “no connection” between the two. He says the utility lobbies mainly on issues such as energy policy, environmental matters and renewable generation and that “if tax benefits are achieved, those benefits flow back to our customers.” He adds that President Obama and Congress have enacted tax laws designed to spur new investment.

“We are in full compliance with the tax laws,” McNulty says. It’s just that the laws allow Wisconsin Energy to make $1.7 billion in profits while collecting tax rebates. Employee giving to legislative campaigns is just one measure of the utility’s health.

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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