Tag Archives: special interests

Powerful dairy lobbyists are behind fouling of state’s water supply

The Dairy Business Association, which was created in 1999 and is based in Green Bay, is run by agri-business and large dairy interests that support looser agriculture and environmental regulations and enforcement. The group is backed by dozens of wealthy special interest sponsors that have contributed more than $2.1 million to statewide and legislative candidates, including more than $710,000 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker in recent years.

Those sponsors include big-name law firms, banking, energy, and large agri-business interests, like Foley and Lardner, Alliant Energy, American Foods Group, BMO Harris Bank, Cargill, Merck, and Monsanto.

The DBA’s backers give it considerable political clout that helps it move a lobbying agenda to deregulate agri-business. The DBA’s achievements include legislative bills and state rules to loosen land use, high-capacity well, wetland, groundwater protection, and factory farm regulations and enforcement. Factory farms are formally called concentrated animal feeding operations — informally known as CAFOs — and house several hundred or thousands of cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys.

In a February 2016 opinion piece about controversial legislation to ease state oversight of high-capacity wells, which did not pass, DBA lobbyist John Holevoet wrote: “Our ready access to fresh water gives Wisconsin a competitive advantage in attracting new farms and other businesses that rely on water. We should be promoting this advantage, not regulating it out of existence.”

The DBA, which spent $179,045 on lobbying in 2015, employs five lobbyists, including Bill McCoshen, a prominent State Capitol lobbyist who was chief of staff to former longtime GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson. In the last full 2013-14 legislative session, the DBA spent nearly $304,000 on lobbying state policymakers.

In addition to lobbying on proposed state policy and spending, media reports as far back as 2010 show the DBA has met directly with the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to change the way the agencies site, permit and regulate factory farms. Such ready access by a large corporate interest has raised questions about the DNR’s independence from both inside and outside the agency. “This particular lobbying group has been able to elbow its way into the higher levels of the regulatory agency. That kind of access is unprecedented,” Jamie Saul, a former Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney, said in a March 2010 media report.

Earlier this summer, the DBA met with the DNR after Walker’s office gave the DBA and other farm industry groups proposed rules drawn up by the agency to restrict manure spreading by factory farms. Shortly after its meeting with the DBA, the DNR reduced the scope of the proposed rules, which govern how and where manure could be spread. Walker then approved the looser rules, which are scheduled for consideration by the DNR Board at its Aug. 3 meeting.

The families of seven of the DBA’s 10-member board of directors own factory farms, including the group’s president, Gordon Speirs, owner of Shiloh Dairy in Brillion. Early last month, heavy rains washed thousands of gallons of manure from Shiloh Dairy into Plum Creek. The creek runs into the Fox River in northern Calumet County. The DNR said Shiloh Dairy may face enforcement action from the manure runoff. Both Calumet and Kewaunee counties have a large number of factory farms. Nearly a third of wells tested in Kewaunee County last year were so contaminated that the water isn’t safe to drink.

The DBA’s lobbying activities for agri-business are just one part of its political arsenal. The group operates a conduit, which delivered $63,340 in large individual contributions to legislative and statewide candidates between January 2005 and December 2015. Some of the campaign cash came from the group’s sponsors as well as other factory farm owners, and agri-business and construction interests. Conduits are legal check-bundling operations often run by lobbyists and special interest groups that collect contributions from individuals, bundle them together and deliver one large check to a candidate.

The DBA’s conduit contributions supported Democratic and GOP legislative and statewide candidates, but substantially more went to Republicans – about $48,300 versus about $15,000. The top recipients of DBA conduit contributions were Republican Gov. Scott Walker, $8,740; former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, $3,450; and former GOP state representative and lieutenant governor candidate Brett Davis, $3,300.

The top individual contributors through the DBA conduit were Dean Doornink, of Baldwin, owner of Jon-De-Farm, $4,000; John Vrieze, of the Town of Emerald, owner of Emerald Dairy, $3,800; and Mark Mashlan, of Kaukauna, an executive with Fox Structures, $2,875.

The group’s annual conventions have drawn heavy hitters from both parties. Walker and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos addressed the DBA’s most recent 2016 annual convention, and Doyle spoke at its 2008 state meeting.

In addition to the individual contributions through the group’s conduit, the DBA also contributed $35,900 in three contributions in 2014 to the Republican Governors Association’s (RGA) 527 group. The RGA spends several millions of dollars each year to support GOP candidates for governor across the country. In 2014, the RGA’s state political action committee spent nearly $4 million on mostly negative broadcast ads to support Walker’s successful reelection. 527 groups are tax-exempt political nonprofit groups that are named after the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code that governs them. These organizations, which are run by powerful business and other special interests, can accept and spend unlimited amounts of unregulated contributions on electioneering activities.

Pope predicts catastrophe if greedy climate-change deniers derail Paris talks

Pope Francis warned Nov. 26 that it would be “catastrophic” for world leaders to let special interest groups get in the way of a global agreement to curb fossil fuel emissions as he brought his environmental message to the heart of Africa on the eve of crucial climate change talks in Paris.

Francis issued the pointed warning in a speech to the U.N.’s regional office here after celebrating his first public Mass on the continent. The joyous, rain-soaked ceremony before 300,000 faithful saw the Argentine pope being serenaded by ululating Swahili singers, swaying nuns, Maasai tribesmen and dancing children dressed in the colors of Kenya’s flag.

Francis has made ecological concerns a hallmark of his nearly 3-year-old papacy, issuing a landmark encyclical earlier this year that paired the need to care for the environment with the need to care for humanity’s most vulnerable. Francis argues the two are interconnected since the poor often suffer the most from the effects of global warming, and are largely excluded from today’s fossil-fuel based global economy that is heating up the planet.

On Nov. 26, Francis repeated that message but took particular aim at those who reject the science behind global warming. In the United States, that includes some Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers, who have opposed steps President Barack Obama has taken on his own to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“It would be sad, and dare I say even catastrophic, were special interests to prevail over the common good and lead to manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and interests,” Francis said.

He didn’t elaborate, but in the United States at least, there has been a well-funded campaign that rejects the findings of 97 percent of climate scientists that global warming is likely man-made and insists that any heating of the Earth is natural. Politicians have cited these claims in their arguments that emissions cuts will hurt the economy.

Francis’ message was praised by NASA historian Erik Conway, who co-wrote the 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt,” which detailed the attempts by far-right institutions and like-minded scientists to discredit the science behind global warming and spread confusion in the public.

Conway said it was difficult to determine today how much money is still being directed into climate change denial since much if it goes through foundations.

“But what that funding has achieved is the nearly complete conversion of Republican Party leadership into denial of human-caused climate change as well as public confusion over the content of the science,” he said in an email.

Francis, who has said global warming is “mainly” man-made, said the world was faced with a stark choice in Paris: either improve or destroy the environment. He said he hoped the Paris talks would approve a “transformational” agreement to fight poverty and protect the environment by developing a new energy system that depends on minimal fossil fuel use.

“Many are the faces, the stories and the evident effects on the lives of thousands of people for whom the culture of deterioration and waste has allowed to be sacrificed before the idols of profits and consumption,” he said. “We cannot remain indifferent in the face of this. We have no right.”

His speech followed a similarly emphatic one before the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, and in various speeches on his travels to South America and Asia.

Nov. 26 was the second day in a row that Francis had touched on environmental concerns after he arrived in Kenya for a six-day pilgrimage that also takes him to Uganda on Friday and the conflict-ridden Central African Republic.

Francis’ first full day in Africa began with a meeting with about 25 Kenyan Christian and Muslim leaders. He warned them that they had little choice but to engage in dialogue to guard against the “barbarous” Islamic extremist attacks that have struck the country.

“Dialogue is not a luxury. It is not something extra or optional, but essential,” he said.

He later celebrated Mass before about 300,000 people at the University of Nairobi, where he received a raucous welcome from the crowd as he zoomed around in his open-sided popemobile, some 10,000 police providing security. Some people had been at the university since 3 a.m., braving heavy showers that turned the grounds into enormous, slick mud puddles. Others waited in queues 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) deep to get close to the venue.

“I am a Catholic and I believe he is godsend,” said Nelly Ndunge, 29, as she waited to see Francis at the Mass. She said Francis’ visit to Kenya was a blessing because it would renew her faith — and had boosted her printing business: She said she had already sold nearly 3,000 copies of a 2016 calendar with the pope’s portrait on it.

Still others turned back, fearing a stampede given the disorganized security.

“We were all disappointed,” said Sarah Ondiso, a senior government official. “The organizers could have done better.”

The size of the crowd — estimated by both police and the Vatican — was far smaller than the 1.4 million that Kenyan authorities had expected after declaring Nov. 26 a national holiday. Vatican officials had predicted a maximum of a half-million people, and said the lower number was apparently due to accreditation and ticketing problems.

In his homily, Francis appealed for traditional family values, calling for Kenyans to “resist practices which foster arrogance in men, hurt or demean women, don’t care for the elderly and threaten the life of the innocent unborn.”

The African church is among the most conservative in the world, and African bishops have been at the forefront in insisting that traditional church teachings on marriage and sexuality, and its opposition to abortion, be strongly emphasized.

Francis obliged, but also stressed issues of his own concern: He called for Kenyans to shape a more just society that looks out for the poor and to “reject everything that leads to prejudice and discrimination, for these things are not of God.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what he was referring to. But in the crowd, there were Kenyans wearing T-shirts and toting umbrellas reading “Who Am I to Judge” — a reference to Francis’ famous quip when asked about a purportedly gay priest. The citation has often been taken to embody Francis’ insistence that gays must be welcomed in the church and not discriminated against.

Scott Walker’s commercial attempts to salvage his campaign but instead shows why he’ll lose

Scott Walker’s supporters have released the first in a $7 million series of commercials to boost his sagging presidential campaign in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The 60-second ad, titled “Fight & Win,” begins with dramatic footage of angry protesters converging on Madison in 2011 after Walker proposed gutting public unions.

The battle made Walker famous, but since then voters have become better acquainted with our bland, flip-flopping, gaffe-prone governor. He’s freefallen from the top of the polls into eighth place. Now Walker is reminding voters of his trademark achievement, which is not really an achievement at all: a law that divided Wisconsin in half politically and was foisted on the state without prior discussion or debate.

GOP governors in other states enacted nearly identical policies without generating the level of backlash and publicity that Walker did. He incited 100,000 people to demonstrate for weeks in frigid weather at the Capitol, earning Wisconsin the title of “most divided state in the nation.” His success at whipping up political frenzy is now his platform for a presidential run.

Act 10 sent school teachers, prison guards and other workers fleeing the state, leaving us with serious shortages in many critical areas. It’s also had a dampening effect on wages: Wisconsin’s middle class is shrinking faster than any other state’s, according to government data.

The way Walker handled Act 10 was not a show of leadership by anyone’s definition of the word. Leaders don’t ambush people with their ideas, they inspire people to rally around them.

Having struck gold by attracting news cameras from all over the world to Madison, Walker went on to govern the state in the most confrontational way possible. He even titled his revisionist memoir Unintimidated, which is also the name of the super PAC supporting him.

But in reality, Walker’s intimidated to the point that he sneaks controversial laws into the budget, then denies knowing anything about them when they generate a backlash. He has to make up stories to make him appear brave, such as the famous fabrication about his car being surrounded by hundreds of life-threatening protesters in La Crosse.

Walker’s gubernatorial tenure has centered on policy decisions written by the conservative corporate think-tank American Legislative Exchange Council, the brain child of Koch Industries, Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma and other special interests. He hasn’t spoken truth to power, he’s taken marching orders from power and collected tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions as a reward.

What’s unintimidated about that?

Walker’s commercial moves on from Act 10 to crow about a lot of “accomplishments.” He claims to have created a “billion dollar surplus,” which was true in January 2014, but only if you don’t count the payments he put off until future budgets. And this year, when Wisconsin faced a $2 billion shortfall, Walker pushed through deep and unpopular spending cuts, including a $250 million reduction to the University of Wisconsin system.

The campaign ad claims Walker signed $2 billion in tax cuts into law during his first term. But those cuts, which overwhelmingly went to wealthy individuals and corporations, contributed to turning his $1 billion surplus into a potential shortfall in less than a year.

The ad also refers to the state’s unemployment rate dropping from 7.8 percent the month before he took office to 4.6 percent in June. It skirts the fact that Walker didn’t come close to his signature 2010 campaign promise, repeated in the 2012 recall election, that the state would add 250,000 private sector jobs by the end of 2014. Only 129,000 jobs were added.

Wisconsin’s private sector job growth during Walker’s first term was 5.7 percent, compared with 9.3 percent growth nationwide. For many months during his first term, Wisconsin lagged at the bottom of the region in terms of job creation — and near the bottom of the nation.

Walker hopes to revive his moribund campaign by positioning himself as a fighter, but even if it were true, it’s not likely to resonate. Voters are tired of the sort of political gridlock and double-talk that he’s mastered. They want leaders who are unabashedly authentic, as evidenced by their embrace of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Voters are tired of scheming, self-serving tricksters more focused on manipulating their poll numbers and pleasing their donors than solving the nation’s problems.

In other words, Walker might as well throw in the towel. Not even a stellar debate performance on Sept. 16, complete with new facial expressions and newly invented stories, can salvage a candidate with his record.

Republican Senators seek to roll back auto, rail safety regulations

At a time of record auto recalls and high-profile train wrecks, Republicans are working on legislation to roll back safety regulation of the auto and railroad industries.

A bill approved this week on a party-line vote by a Senate committee brims with industry-sought provisions that would block, delay or roll back safety rules. The measure is to be part of a must-pass transportation bill that GOP leaders hope to put to a vote in the Senate as early as next week.

They are under pressure to act quickly because authority for transportation programs expires on July 31. Without a cash infusion, the government will have to delay highway and transit aid to states.

One provision would block a new Department of Transportation rule requiring that trains hauling crude oil are equipped with electronically controlled brakes that affect cars all at the same time, rather than sequentially. The bill calls for a study of the technology and puts off any regulatory mandate, which could delay implementation for years.

The brake rule was prompted by a series of train wrecks in which cars of crude oil and ethanol exploded, igniting fires that burned for days. Freight railroads oppose the rule, which could cost them billions of dollars.

Another provision would give freight and commuter railroads and Amtrak more time to install a safety system called positive train control. The technology relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train position and slow or stop trains in danger of derailing because they’re traveling too fast, are about to collide with another train or are about to enter an area where crews are working on tracks.

A 2008 law requires railroads to have the technology installed and operating by the end of this year. Most are not expected to make that deadline.

The National Transportation Safety Board says that if the technology had been in operation, it could have prevented an Amtrak derailment in May that killed eight people and injured about 200 others in Philadelphia, and a derailment that killed four passengers and injured 64 others in New York City in December 2013, as well as other fatal accidents.

Railroads say they have spent billions of dollars on the technology but have been hampered by technical and financial difficulties and need more time.

The bill would effectively allow states to lower the qualifying age for interstate commercial truck drivers from 21 to 18. The provision was sought by the trucking industry, which says there is a shortage of drivers.

Another provision sought by the industry would require the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to remove safety ratings of truck and bus companies from its public website. The companies disagree with the methodology the agency uses for the ratings.

The bill would impose requirements on the motor carrier agency that safety advocates say could stymie new safety regulations by making an already lengthy rulemaking process even more difficult.

Following record auto recalls last year totaling almost 64 million vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked that its staff be increased and the limit on fines levied on offending automakers be raised to $300 million, from the current $35 million.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee agreed to increase the agency’s budget, but only after it satisfies 17 recommendations made by the Transportation Department’s inspector general. The maximum fine would double to $70 million, but only after the agency comes out with regulations identifying all the factors that go into calculating fines. The conditions could effectively delay action on both matters by a year or more.

Two GOP presidential candidates on the committee — Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — didn’t attend the meeting while the bill’s provisions were being voted upon. However, the chairman, Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota., cast proxy votes for them on amendments and for Cruz on final passage of the bill. Rubio voted in person in favor of passage of the bill. Several Democrats joined GOP senators in opposing changes to controversial provisions.

Thune and other Republicans on the committee said the changes were necessary reforms to federal agencies that have overstepped their bounds or have issued regulations that unfairly penalize industry without improving safety. Thune noted the bill contains several provisions sought by Democrats and safety advocates.

One of the biggest would prevent rental car agencies from renting vehicles that are under a safety recall, but have not been repaired. Initially, the bill had said rental car agencies could rent unrepaired cars if they first informed customers. Other provisions would make it easier for states to qualify for federal grants to tackle drunk driving, promote seatbelt use and address other safety issues, and start a pilot program to inform motorists of recalls when they register their cars.

That was not enough to sweeten the bill for safety advocates.

The GOP bill is “loaded down with giveaways to special interests that will set back safety for years to come,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “The influence of corporate lobbyists had more sway than commonsense and cost-effective solutions to deadly problems.”

See also Congressional Republicans attack environmental policies.

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Fair play vs. corporate welfare in Milwaukee

Amid the fall political campaigns, a dynamic grassroots movement for justice in Milwaukee made headlines, reminding us that change does not necessarily come from politicians but from people working together in their communities.

The organization Common Ground is providing much-needed pushback to the steam-rolling effort by business leaders to get hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to build a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. The BMO Harris Bradley Center is just 25 years old but is said to lack the latest technology and luxury boxes necessary to make a sufficient profit and satisfy the NBA.

Wall Street titans Marc Lasry and Wes Edens recently bought the Bucks for $550 million. The NBA laid down an ultimatum for a new arena to be built in Milwaukee by 2017, and Lasry and Edens offered to kick in $100 million. Former Bucks owner Herb Kohl said he’d throw in another $100 million. It’s the remaining $200 or $300 million that taxpayers might be asked to contribute.

In the midst of an aggressive campaign to woo support for this latest corporate welfare scheme, Common Ground made waves with its own proposal, “Fair Play: A Campaign to Foster Greatness in Public Spaces.”

The basis of “Fair Play” is a devastating report about the crumbling, hazardous conditions of parks and recreation facilities in Milwaukee County and a detailed proposal for revitalizing them. That report, “Envisioning Fair Play,” is available at www.fairplaywi.org. Read it and weep. It dramatizes through quantitative data and photographic evidence the disgraceful neglect of Milwaukee’s public spaces.

In the report, architectural and landscaping plans show how improvements can be made at different sites, with startling cost comparisons. The new Bucks arena will have 18,000 seats at a cost of $27,777 per seat. Comprehensive improvements at Vincent High School will cost the equivalent of just 320 Bucks seats. Lincoln Park’s makeover can be done for only 221 Bucks seats.

Common Ground demands that if hundreds of millions of public dollars are spent to subsidize the privately owned Bucks, at least $150 million must be allocated to repair Milwaukee’s parks and recreation facilities. If you agree, tell your alderman or county supervisor ASAP.

It’s infuriating how politicians continually privilege private interests with tax breaks and subsidies while ignoring neighborhoods and public spaces — the places where most of us actually live. When owners can slap down a half billion dollars for a team at the same time that team members are paid millions annually and game tickets are unaffordable for half the people in the city, why should the public be expected to pay up?

But what about the economic impact?! 

Most studies of publicly funded sports venues — including those by the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Heartland Institute — reveal exaggerated impact projections and little or no economic boosts for local economies.

But Milwaukee’s image!

What kind of blinders must people be wearing to worship the image of a luxury, high-tech playpen while streets, housing, schools and parks decay around them?

I applaud Common Ground, a coalition of groups that is doing focused, effective work on this public funding issue and other fronts like rehabbing foreclosed properties and establishing the Common Ground Health Cooperative, an affordable insurance option.

Get involved

Common Ground meets the third Monday of each month at 2375 N. 25th St. For more, go to www.commongroundwi.org or call  414-751-0755.

On the Web

http://www.fairplaywi.org/fields/

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Outside special interests rule Wisconsin at the expense of its citizens

Our nation’s founders wrote the Federalist Papers to articulate their vision for a new independent nation and justify their proposed design for a new government. They wrote using pseudonyms due to fear for the authors’ liberty and life if the crown discovered their true identities.

Writing as “Publius” in Federalist No. 52, one of the founders (widely thought to be James Madison or Alexander Hamilton) argued for a “government which ought to be dependent on the people alone.” 

He outlined principles of representation through elections that would produce such a condition.

A government dependent on the people alone. That was the founders’ design. That was their gift to us.

But that design has been fundamentally corrupted.

Today’s government officials are not dependent on the people alone. They have conflicting dependencies. Competing dependencies.

Elected representatives are supposed to take their cues from the voters alone. But with election campaigning so insanely expensive, those representatives have little choice but to also take cues from their campaign donors. And the donor population is not the same as the voting population.

On average, state legislators get two-thirds of the campaign money from people who live outside their districts and thus can’t vote for them. Gov. Scott Walker gets more than half of his money from such people.

This corruption of the founders’ design has very tangible costs.

A Democracy Campaign report identified close to four dozen actions taken by legislators and the governor since January 2013 that provided at least $760 million worth of benefits to special interests in the form of tax breaks and other policy favors.

Those decisions cost the average family of four $528. If you read the entire list of actions, you will be hard-pressed to find a single one that benefits you. There is a sales tax exemption for companies that print and deliver junk mail. There is another sales tax exemption for aircraft parts.

When you go to the department store to buy a pair of shoes or some clothing, you pay the sales tax. But if you have enough money to own an airplane, you no longer have to pay tax on parts for your plane. If you are in the junk mail business, you don’t have to pay the state sales tax anymore either.

Manufacturers of lead paint have been given protection from future product liability lawsuits. Those who send their children to private schools now get an income tax deduction. The list goes on and on.

Here in Wisconsin we’ve been told repeatedly that the state is broke and government must do less for us. Yet those who bankroll election campaigns have been given more. At least $760 million more. 

The few benefit at the expense of the many because we do not have a government dependent on the people alone.

Mike McCabe is the author of “Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics” and director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money in state elections and works for reforms making people matter more than money in politics.