Matt Rothschild
Campaign Cash

How Realtors Association Gains Clout

$10 million in campaign donations, heavy lobbying wins it favored legislation.

By , Wisconsin Democracy Campaign - Feb 2nd, 2017 10:02 am
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Highland Boulevard homes. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Highland Boulevard homes. Photo by Carl Baehr.

The Wisconsin Realtors Association is one of the state’s most influential political groups, helping elect candidates favored by the real estate industry and scoring victories on policies.

The association spends most of its time lobbying on tax, legal, construction, environmental, and other issues to benefit the real estate industry, which has made about $10.7 million in individual and political action committee (PAC) contributions since January 2000 to legislative and statewide candidates.

The overwhelming amount of campaign cash contributed by the industry – about $7.6 million – went to Republican and conservative legislative and statewide candidates.

For its part, the Wisconsin Realtors Association has directed about $2.5 million of the industry’s direct contributions through its longtime conduit, which is a legal check-bundling outfit, and PAC. The group’s PAC contributions to legislative and statewide candidates totaled about $1.1 million between January 2000 and December 2016. Excluding political parties and candidate committees, the Realtors PAC ranks first among contributions from special interest PACs.

The top recipients of individual and PAC contributions since January 2000 through the Realtors Association’s conduit and PAC were Republican Gov. Scott Walker, about $315,150; former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, about $104,180; and former 2006 GOP candidate for governor Mark Green, about $99,350.

In addition to direct contributions to candidates, the Realtors group has spent an estimated $1.2 million on phony issue ads and independent expenditures to help Republican and conservative candidates through its PAC, a corporation and a phony issue ad group called the Wisconsin Homeowners Alliance. The Realtors Association has gotten money for some of its outside electioneering activities from the National Association of Realtors via a 527 organization that may raise and spend unlimited funds on elections.

The top recipients of the Realtors Association’s outside spending have been Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, about $206,600 during her 2013 reelection campaign; and Walker, an estimated $200,000 during his 2014 reelection campaign.

The Realtors Association was recently among numerous special interest organizations that urged Walker to fund pay raises for judges in his upcoming 2017-19 state budget. The groups’ letter to Walker earlier this month coincides with an effort by Roggensack, who leads the high court’s 5-2 conservative majority, to get 16 percent pay raises for the state’s judges at a cost of $6.4 million a year.

In 2010, the Realtors Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce helped write looser Code of Judicial Conduct rules that were later adopted by the high court. The rules said campaign contributions, endorsements, and outside electioneering activities like broadcast ads and mailings by a person or group in a case before the high court are not automatic grounds for justices who received such support to recuse themselves.

In recent years, the association has sharply increased its lobby spending at the State Capitol. During the 2011-12 legislative session the group spent about $359,400 compared to about $492,330 in the 2013-14 legislative session, and about $630,200 during the first 18 months of the 2015-16 legislative session. That’s an increase of 75 percent over the last three sessions.

The group has taken an active role lobbying on some controversial issues, such as lead paint regulations and local control. Among the bills backed by the Realtors that were approved by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed into law by Walker were ones that:

  • Reduced state lead painting inspection and testing requirements;
  • Loosened standards for placing structures along the shores of lakes and rivers, and banned counties from using zoning ordinances to regulate or restrict shoreline construction projects, like boathouses and fishing rafts;
  • Limited the ability of communities to require rental unit inspections, license landlords, charge inspection fees, and enforce sprinkling ordinances stricter than state law. The law also makes it easier and faster for landlords to evict tenants and dispose of personal property that is left behind;
  • Provided more than $250 million in state and local bonding and other support to help the Milwaukee Bucks build a new arena;
  • Reduced public access and state oversight and regulation, and increased logging on more than 3 million acres of privately owned forestland in exchange for property tax breaks.

Matthew Rothschild is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

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