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Contract lobbying still ‘under the radar’

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

By Bill Lueders

In Wisconsin, any paid representative of an interest group who spends more than a nominal amount of time trying to influence state law or policy must register with the state Government Accountability Board and submit twice-yearly accountings of lobbying activity.

But if a person works to help an interest group secure a state government contract, even one worth tens of millions of dollars, there is no registration or reporting requirement.

“Lobbyists must register for bills and administrative rules,” said former Democratic state Rep. Spencer Black. “But the contracts, which is really where the big money is, these guys can do it under the radar.”

Black, who served 26 years in the state Assembly before stepping down in 2010, repeatedly introduced legislation to plug this loophole. But his bills never passed.

In the 2011-12 legislative session, state Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood, introduced a bill to impose a registration and reporting rule on those seeking to influence state procurement decisions. It also would have required most state officials who leave state service to wait 12 months before engaging in this activity.

The bill went nowhere, but Pasch plans to reintroduce it, after adding provisions to ban no-bid contracts. The issue of contract reform is included on a list of legislative priorities recently released by Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.

Although her office said it couldn’t give specific examples because of the lack of a reporting mechanism, Pasch said these changes are needed “to shine light on the procurement process, which is largely done behind closed doors.”

In fact, Pasch suggests this law is needed now more than ever, because of the actions of the state’s chief executive.

“We have seen a continued willingness on behalf of Gov. (Scott) Walker and legislative Republicans,” Pasch said, “to reward special interests and big corporate donors at the expense of our everyday families.”

State procurement decisions are big business.

A recent report showed that state agencies and the University of Wisconsin System spent $516 million in fiscal year 2012 on services from outside vendors. And that doesn’t include procured goods, from packs of pencils to fleets of vehicles.

DeWitt Ross & Stevens, a state-based law firm with a full roster of registered lobbyists, boasts of its success at winning “state contracting opportunities and procurement” for clients. One of those lobbyists, Peter Christianson, said he has no position on the bill and doesn’t think his colleagues do either: “Whatever the law is, we will comply with it.”

Christianson did say that last session’s version of Pasch’s bill, as he reads it, would not cover some activity, such as “trying to convince an agency to start the procurement process.”

In 2010, a candidate for state public office advocated forcefully for the change that Pasch is seeking. The candidate, on his campaign website, promised to “Restore Wisconsin’s reputation for clean and honest government through transparency in the state contracting process.”

Specifically, the candidate vowed to “require lobbyists to report all attempts to influence state agency decisions regarding the awarding of state contracts and grants and provide real time disclosure of all contracts and grant awards. Government is spending your money and you have a right to know when, where, and how much.”

But the candidate, who was elected after making this pledge, does not appear to have done anything to advance it. This promise regarding contract lobbying has been removed from the candidate’s campaign website, but was captured on a website known as The Political Guide.

The candidate’s name is Scott Walker.

Cullen Werwie, the governor’s spokesman, would not say whether Walker still supports this campaign pledge and what if any steps he has taken toward achieving it. His only comment: “We’ll evaluate the final version of this bill if it reaches his desk.”

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