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Union lobbying plummets in last half of 2011

By Bill Lueders

When the unions’ lobbying money flowed, it really flowed. And then, for the most part, it dried up.

During the first half of 2011, labor unions collectively reported spending more than $7 million on lobbying in Wisconsin. This six-month total was $2 million more than these same unions spent during the entire two-year legislative session in 2009-10.

Four unions representing public employees in Wisconsin led the Government Accountability Board’s top 10 list of spenders from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2011. These unions — the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, Wisconsin Education Association Council, AFSCME Council 11 and AFSCME International — reported spending a total of $6.3 million on 25,558 hours of lobbying.

But in latter half of 2011, according to recently filed reports, these four unions collectively spent $353,193 on 3,153 hours of lobbying. In terms of dollars, that’s a 94 percent decline.

In the first half of 2011, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO led the state in lobbying outlays, at $2.3 million.

In the year’s second half, the group reported spending only $25,123, barely 1 percent of its earlier total.

As that character played by Fred Willard in “A Mighty Wind” might ask, “Wha’ happened?”

First of all, the unions spent huge amounts of time and money in the first half of 2011 organizing rallies all over the state in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s changes to collective bargaining. This got logged as an attempt to influence state law or policy.

“We tend to be pretty liberal in what we report, to be in full compliance with the law,” said Susan McMurray, a lobbyist for AFSCME Council 11. She noted that the state budget dominated the first half of 2011, when the union spent $1.2 million. But there were fewer issues of concern in the year’s second half, when only $158,304 was spent.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, said “the first six months of the year brought unprecedented attacks on working people and Wisconsin’s unions. We spent significant time fighting Governor Walker’s union-busting bill and job-killing budget.”

Bloomingdale said her union now focused on educating members, suggesting a change in focus.

Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for WEAC, whose spending went from $2.1 million to $167,846, speaks to this more directly.

“We’ve had a lot of repositioning of people and we shifted our focus to the grassroots,” Brey said. “People who had previously done lobbying are now organizing members in communities around the state.”

WEAC, which last year trimmed its workforce significantly, including about two dozen layoffs, has gone from having 15 registered lobbyists in January 2011 to only nine now.

“We’re doing things as a union a whole new way,” said Brey, acknowledging that new rules made it harder for unions to keep members, requiring more outreach. “Our members are very engaged and active at the local level.”

Others, meanwhile, are sticking to more traditional approaches. Groups including the Wisconsin Medical Society, Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Hospital Association saw their lobbying costs stay somewhat steady, in the $200,000 range for each half of the year.

And spending by the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce rose from $193,244 to $246,345. WMC has registered an interest in more than 100 bills, identifying only one — AB 426, to revamp the state’s mining rules — as accounting for more than 10 percent of its effort in the last half of 2011, in this case 17 percent.

Walker, speaking at a WMC event Feb. 16 in Madison, “urged the business leaders to do all they could to get the bill passed,” the Associated Press reported. We’ll know in six months or so whether they obliged.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

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