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Exchange decision puts Walker's donors at odds

Governor's campaign took in donations from supporters, opponents of state-run effort

Nov. 24, 2012
 
GPG n Walker_Altmayer School
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker / H. Marc Larson/Gannett Wisconsin Media

Campaign contributions

Categories of special interest groups that donated to Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign in the recall election earlier this year:
» Manufacturing and distributing: $1,464,432
» Health services/institutions: $661,236
» Business donors: $649,019
» Health professionals: $644,865
» Insurance industry: $459,321
Source: Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

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MADISON — In the week after the Nov. 6 presidential election. Gov. Scott Walker was confronted by an issue that divided his biggest financial backers.

A review of campaign finance data by Gannett Wisconsin Media indicates groups and individuals that support a state-run health care exchange spent millions helping Walker survive this year’s recall election.

The same review shows that others, who are strongly opposed to the exchanges, also spent millions this year on the governor’s behalf.

With these dollars in the background, and a federal deadline approaching, Walker left the implementation of an exchange to the federal government.

“The fact that there is some split among Walker’s donors on the health care exchange issue probably explains why he wrestled so long and went right up to the deadline before making a decision,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.

“He had to finesse this in order to keep those donors happy.”

The health insurance exchanges are a key part of the national Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, intended to provide people with a place to purchase insurance at a subsidized rate. States have the option to implement the exchanges, or the federal government will step in and do so.

Governors originally had a Nov. 16 deadline to make a decision, but it was extended by a month.

Wisconsin business groups, health groups and the insurance industry have supported the idea of state-run exchanges.

Since taking office in January 2011, Walker’s campaign received nearly $3.9 million in direct campaign contributions from five categories of special interest groups with key stakeholders in the future of Wisconsin’s health care, according to data compiled and classified by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

While individual donors have individual opinions, these interest groups undoubtedly included many donors who backed state-run exchanges.

Insurance industry donors contributed $459,321 to Walker’s campaign; manufacturing and distributing donors, $1,464,432; business donors, $649,019; health services/institutions donors, $661,236; and health professionals, $644,865.

In addition to direct donors to Walker’s campaign, outside groups spent substantial sums on television ads in support of Walker this year. They were divided on the health care issue.

The conservative group Americans For Prosperity (AFP) spent $3.7 million on a recall defense in late 2011 and early 2012, according to Democracy Campaign estimates.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a business group that supports state-run exchanges, spent $4 million on the recall election this year, according to Democracy Campaign estimates.

Walker’s main reason for opting to not run the health care exchange wasn’t about the campaign, according to his spokesman.

In an email response, spokesman Cullen Werwie wrote, “The main reason for the decision on the health insurance exchanges was simple: protecting Wisconsin taxpayers. ... The exchanges, regardless of who runs them, will provide nearly the same product, and with a state-run exchange or partnership, state taxpayers could be on the hook.”

Despite the division on the health care issue, there’s no indication Walker’s donors will abandon him over his decision.

A WMC spokesman did not return a call for comment this past week. But in the wake of Walker’s Nov. 16 decision, the group’s director released a statement that did not rebuke the governor.

“While WMC supported the creation of a Wisconsin-specific exchange, we acknowledge that Governor Walker makes a good case for not doing so,” said Kurt Bauer, the group’s president.

AFP’s Wisconsin state director, Luke Hilgemann, said Walker would continue to receive broad support in the business community.

“I definitely think that’s going to continue. I don’t think there’s anybody who has been a better advocate for job creation and entrepreneurs than Scott Walker and his administration here in Wisconsin,” Hilgemann said. “I think that relationship will continue. Sometimes, we have respectful disagreements with ... the business lobby, but I think we work together well, because we agree, like they do, that too much government intervention in the private sector is a bad thing.”

Dennis Riley, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said it’s possible the campaign contributions on both sides for Walker essentially canceled each other out.

“You (also) have the possibility that there’s an assumption by Walker’s people that Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and some of these other groups, standard business groups, are not going to desert him for any Democrat they can see on the horizon,” Riley said. “So they’re pretty well locked up and they can be unhappy, and not disappear as potential contributors.

“The business community is not going to leave Scott Walker and the Republican Party over something like this. I think he’s on safe ground, financially.”

Michael Kraft, a professor of public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said Walker is playing to an audience beyond Wisconsin on this issue.

“I think he sees himself playing in a larger political arena and the health care decision really has nothing to do with what’s best for Wisconsin,” he said. “It’s a political decision that he and other Republican governors want to take.

“I guess, because they are reading the election results and are saying it’s still in their interest to hold to the conservative agenda and oppose the president on these kinds of issues.”

McCabe said money buys access and access is power. He said that even donors who did not get their way on this issue will still have sway with the Walker administration.

“Money has an agenda-setting power,” McCabe said. “It certainly gets those interests a degree of access that non-donors or small donors don’t get.

“Those donors will certainly be at the table and they will certainly have a lot of say in decisions that are made in the state related to health care. The average citizen doesn’t have the agenda-setting power, or that ability to gain access to the conversation."

– Ben Jones: 608-255-9256, or bbjones@gannett.com; on Twitter: @MadisonPolitics

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