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Editorial cartoon (3/21/2018)

I always look forward to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's bimonthly newsletter called the "Big Money Bulletin."

It's one of the few places you can get a good look at who's shoveling money at politicians, how much and for what reason. It's the embodiment of the adage that proclaims that if you want to know why politicians act the way they do, just "follow the money."

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's "Citizens United" ruling of several years ago and the recent evisceration of Wisconsin's campaign finance laws by our state Supreme Court, it's getting harder and harder to keep track of the money, but the WDC has kept ahead of the game.

It's tabulated, for instance, that fundraising by Wisconsin legislative and statewide candidates has shot up more than 550 percent in the last 25 years. Where candidate fundraising totaled $9.2 million in 1989-90, it reached $61.3 million in 2013-14.

Obviously, campaign contributors have found it's good business to ply politicians with lots of dough.

There's a piece in the February-March bulletin, for instance, on the Wisconsin DNR's approval of the Kohler Corp.'s latest golf course along the Lake Michigan shore, which uses a piece of state park land.

WDC notes that Kohler Co. employees contributed $60,765 between January 2010 and June 2017 to legislative and statewide candidates. But most of those contributions came from the boss himself, Herbert Kohler Jr., a major contributor to Gov. Scott Walker.

Kohler, the WDC reports, contributed $40,000 to Walker, $5,000 to Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, $2,000 to Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and $1,500 to former GOP Sen. Joe Leibham of Sheboygan. This group, of course, plays a key role in decision-making that can help Kohler get its way.

Another huge contributor to legislators since the Walker administration took over has been the real estate industry. It contributed $1.4 million between January 2011 and June 2017 to current legislators, $1.2 million of it to Republicans, according to the WDC's tabulations.

What's pitiful about too many legislators these days is that they simply ignore what used to be conflicts of interest. So it's not surprising that two legislators with personal connections to real estate interests and who are beneficiaries of real estate money would author a bill to make sweeping changes to the state's landlord-tenant laws.

The Democracy Campaign reported that the co-authors of yet another bill to tilt the playing field to property owners over tenants, former real estate broker Frank Lasee, a GOP senator from De Pere who only a few weeks ago took a plush state job and stepped down from the Legislature, and real estate agent David Craig, a GOP state representative from Big Bend, collected more than $41,000 from the real estate lobby. Lasee also happens to be a landlord with more than passing interest in making life better for landlords.

All this and more is in the Democracy Campaign's bulletin.

One of my favorite parts of the bulletin is its naming of the "Influence Peddler" of the month. The February-March issue gives the "award" — again — to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which specializes in buying influence with governors, legislators and state Supreme Court justices.

Matt Rothschild, the WDC's executive director, started giving the award some three years go.

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"We gave it to WMC again because it remains the single biggest lobbyist in the state Capitol, it's one of the largest spenders on outside ads, and it's getting its way across the board," he explained.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce secretly raised and spent $33 million between January 2006 and December 2017, the Democracy Campaign reported, most of it on broadcast ads to support conservative Republicans and to smear their Democratic opponents. Walker has been the top beneficiary with $9.5 million.

And that's just part of it. The state's chamber of commerce, WMC has also made direct contributions through a political action committee and a conduit. The biggest recipients of that spending have been Walker, the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, GOP Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and the notorious anti-environmentalist state Sen. Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst.

I suppose congratulations are in order to WMC. They know how to make sure they control this Republican-dominated state government. Just keep throwing money at it.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. 

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.