When news broke earlier this week that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker had raised an astounding $13.2 million this year in order to stave off a public-union-instigated recall attempt, all the usual kvetching about “money in politics” began. (For comparison, as pointed out by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rick Santorum raised about $18.5 million during the first three months of the year.) Walker has raised $25 million since he took office in January of 2011; his primary Democratic opponents, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett and former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, raised $831,500 and $977,000, respectively, during the recent reporting period.
Of course, those types of figures have led national news organizations to bemoan the influence of corporate dollars on the recall process. The New York Times and Governing magazine lay all of this “corporate influence” at the feet of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which is pure nonsense. Citizens United addressed the federal Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — Wisconsin’s campaign-finance structure is exactly the same now as it was before the Supreme Court acted. The only difference is the sheer volume of money that is being poured into this structure, in order to retain the public unions’ ability to mandate membership, and therefore, dues. (If this election were actually run like corporate America, Walker would simply buy the Barrett and Falk campaigns and mothball them.)
Yet in Wisconsin, it seems somewhat difficult to get anyone to refer to government unions as a “special interest.” Unions refer to themselves as “the middle class,” or the “hard-working people” of the state — as if every member of the middle class worked for a state or local government. To the Left, any collection of individuals that uses their own money to influence a public debate is known as an “interest group.” Conversely, if a similar group uses taxpayer money boosted through union dues to do the same thing, it is known as a “grassroots organization.”
Last year, these little mom-and-pop unions spent $25 million in Wisconsin in an attempt to recall six Republican state senators. According to the recent finance reports, unions have spent well over $5 million in the Walker recall so far, and the Democratic primary hasn’t even yet been held. In large part, Walker needs to raise prodigious sums of money to keep up with the union spending that is expected during the general-election campaign prior to June 5.
Not only are unions a special interest, they are what we can call an “enhanced” special interest. It is one thing for private interests to spend their own money on campaigns; if the Sierra Club or NRA want to influence elections, they have to find members, solicit them, and keep them on board.
But public-sector unions have to do none of this. In his report Dues and Deep Pockets: Public-Sector Unions’ Money Machine, Daniel DiSalvo of the Manhattan Institute describes how state laws mandate union participation, thus making dues compulsory. Taxpayers pay taxes to pay for public employees, whose wages are then garnished and sent to union leaders, who spend that money to elect officials that will vote for higher taxes to pay higher wages and hire more union members. Wash, rinse, repeat.
These mandatory dues add up. In 2010, according to DiSalvo, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) reported an income of $211,806,537; the National Education Association (a major teachers’ union) received $397,953,771; and Service Employees International Union received $318,755,793.
And where do these funds go during elections? According to DiSalvo:
The National Institute on Money in State Politics data show that in 2010, across all states, public-sector unions spent about $150 million — up from $130 million in 2008 and $118 million in 2006. In 2010, unions gave Democratic candidates $86,641,325 and spent $53,663,888 on ballot measures; the rest (less than 10 percent of the total) went to Republicans and third-party candidates. This means that public-sector unions were in the top five biggest-spending interest groups trying to influence politics at the state level.
Furthermore, public-sector unions’ legislative aims also differ drastically from those of a private special interest. Public unions’ missions — increased wages and benefits, more government employment, and more government spending — are entirely dependent on the legislators they are trying to elect. Business interests have to campaign for sympathetic legislators, then go out in the marketplace and actually run their businesses; for unions, once they get the right mix of legislators, their work is essentially done. Government revenue is their singular aim.
And it is this framework that the public unions are trying so desperately to protect in Wisconsin. Those who complain about all the spending are forgetting that it was the unions that picked this fight; if they weren’t pouring tens of millions of dollars into the state to keep their protection racket alive, Scott Walker wouldn’t have had to raise a cent this year.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.