Money & Politics Blog: Mining bill shows might isn’t everything

A few weeks back, this column noted that virtually all the lobbying muscle regarding the redrawing of voter boundaries was brought to bear against the bills that sailed through. That undercuts the popular notion that outside special interests drive the political process, since here the push came entirely from an inside special interest — the GOP-controlled state Legislature itself.

But that’s not the only example of how lawmakers serve other masters besides money and might.

Take the state’s voter identification law. Nearly three dozen lobby groups registered in opposition to these new voting requirements, which two Dane County judges have in recent days struck down as unconstitutional. Only one group, the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry, registered in favor.

For 2011, about 1,000 hours of lobbying was reported by the bill’s opponents, led by the United Council of UW Students, with 395 hours. No hours were reported spent by the Fox Cities group, the lone supporter.

The state lobbying community’s message to the Legislature was loud and clear: “We don’t want voter ID.” The Legislature’s response: “We don’t care.” The new law easily passed last May on party line votes.

A more astonishing example of how lobby clout doesn’t always decide legislative outcomes is the state Assembly’s mining bill, which recently failed to pass the state Senate. There’s talk of last-minute efforts or even a special session to revive the bill. But for now, it appears dead.

That’s surprising, given that 28 state lobby groups staked out positions in favor of this bill, and only 13 were opposed.

Through the end of 2011, opponents did lobby longer than proponents, 1,157 to 779 hours. Most of this effort came from a single group, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, which invested 1,061 hours. That was 30 percent of its 2011 lobbying effort, on which it spent $130,151.

The bill’s supporters included such heavy hitters as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the powerful business lobby group, which logged 386 hours last year backing the bill.

Gogebic Taconite, the subsidiary of a national mining company that hoped to open a $1.5 billion iron mine in northern Wisconsin, reported spending 161 hours on this bill. Overall, in 2011, the company spent $202,103 on 1,006 hours of lobbying — all regarding mining in Wisconsin.

After the Senate failed to pass the mining bill on March 6, Gogebic announced that it was dropping its plans for a Wisconsin mine.

An analysis by MapLight, a nonpartisan group that tracks lobby clout in terms of campaign contributions, found that, between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2011, backers of the Assembly mining bill gave a total of $244,886 to current members of the state Legislature. This compares to $21,905 from groups opposed, a margin of 11 to one.

The bill’s failure is even more extraordinary considering the broadness of its support base. Backers included not just the Wisconsin Mining Association (“Every day there is no iron mining in Wisconsin is a day of lost economic opportunity,” the group declared in a statement), but also the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and United Sportsmen of Wisconsin.

In 2012, five labor unions, including the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council and Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters, signed on as supporters of the Assembly bill; their expenditures of time and money won’t be tallied until mid-year.

In fact, the mining bill did have majority support. It passed the Assembly 59-36, and came within one vote — that of Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center — of passing the Senate, 16-17. Schultz refused to go along with a bill he felt did not offer sufficient opportunities for public input or protections for the environment.

People often talk as though the American political system is a giant vending machine: Interest groups put money in, get policy out. But it’s much more complicated than that. The system is run by human beings, who obey all sorts of masters — including, at times, their sense of what’s right.

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 Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.