Fit to print: Lawmakers read the papers, and taxpayers get the bill

By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Who says people don’t read newspapers anymore?

At the same time many Americans are getting their news online or on TV, members of the state Legislature in fiscal 2013 spent $140,370 in taxpayer money on subscriptions to newspapers, magazines and online news services, a Wisconsin Reporter analysis found.

A large chunk of that spending went toward two insider baseball-type publications that keep subscribers up to date on the statehouse.

“Many of the state’s top elected officials rely on WisPolitics, shouldn’t you?” goes the WisPolitics.com TV advertisement.

They aren’t exaggerating. Lawmakers spent $34,562 of taxpayer cash on subscriptions to WisPolitics.com and $25,496 on The Wheeler Report this past fiscal year.

For the average resident, lobbyist or businessman in the state, the news services offer insider information in a user-friendly format. But if it seems as though taxpayers are spending beaucoup bucks on the kind of information that lawmakers — each replete with full-time staffers — should already have access to, it’s because they are.

CHARGE IT: Wisconsin lawmakers charged taxpayers $140,370 for subscriptions to newspapers and online news services in FY 2013.

Anyone — including lawmakers — can use the free website for the state Legislature, which publishes new bills, resolutions and amendments regularly. Committee hearings and actions are updated on the site. Bill status updates and member votes are recorded for each bill on the site almost instantaneously. By using an RSS reader, many of which are free, that information can be delivered to a lawmaker’s desktop as it’s published.

WisconsinEye, another free service, publishes and archives hours of daily video coverage of floor sessions, committee hearings, interviews and other events from around the state. If a state lawmaker needs even more insider access to the statehouse, all one must do is attend closed caucus meetings. Taxpayers also buy lawmakers’ subscriptions to other in-state and out-of-state news publications including:

  • $5,942 for subscriptions to the Wisconsin State Journal
  • $10,354 for subscriptions to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • $3,091 for subscriptions to the New York Times
  • $4,106 for subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal
  • $87.92 for subscriptions to the libertarian Reason magazine

Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, spent $69.95 on a subscription to Harper’s, a monthly cultural magazine.

Although the data pulled was for records between July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013, 134 subscriptions in the assembly expire after this year’s November elections, when all 99 representatives are up for re-election.

Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, has a subscription to the Columbus Journal that doesn’t expire until 2016. That paper is available free online.

Some lawmakers prefer their taxpayer-funded newspapers to arrive directly at their doorstep in the morning. Thirty-three subscriptions were marked for home delivery, according to the records received by Wisconsin Reporter through an open-records request. Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, receives The Racine Journal Times, The Westine Report, The Waterford Post, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Standard Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Milwaukee Business Journal at home, according to the records.

Vos did not return calls for comment on this story. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who spent the most taxpayer cash on newspapers in the state Senate — $3,310 — also failed to return calls for comment.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, isn’t surprised by what he called the “longstanding practice” of lawmakers spending taxpayer cash on news services.

“If all of (the spending) is out in the open and they can make the case that the expense has a reasonable tie to their work as a legislator, that’s up for each taxpayer to make the determination (if it’s appropriate),” he said. “It’d be great if more constituents and taxpayers raised these questions with their legislators. In the absence of doing so, legislators say, ‘If no one cares, I’ll purchase this.’”

It’s reasonable for people to want an informed Legislature, but lawmakers have other means of obtaining newspapers at no or reduced personal cost. The incumbent’s campaign committee can buy newspaper subscriptions with donor money, according to the Government Accountability Board. Alternatively, lawmakers can deduct newspaper subscriptions on their federal tax returns, according to the tax guide prepared for state lawmakers by the Wisconsin Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

“Whether these office expenses are justified is just the opening to a larger question: What do we need a full-time legislature for?” Heck said. “Wisconsin is by far the smallest population with a full-time Legislature. If we don’t need a full-time legislature, then do they need the office budget for those types of things?”

Not all lawmakers take advantage of their generous office budgets — about $12,000 a biennium for Assembly members and $56,000 for state senators — for buying newspapers.

GIVING BACK: Appleton Democrat Penny Bernard-Schaber was one of four lawmakers who did not charge newspapers to taxpayers in fiscal 2013.

“I get the paper at home,” said Rep. Penny Bernard-Schaber, D-Appleton. “I’ve always gotten the paper at home. I felt I should continue to get it at home and not charge it to the taxpayer.”

Bernard-Schaber was one of four members of the Assembly who did not spend taxpayer money on newspaper subscriptions in fiscal 2013. Rep. Fred Kessler, D- Milwaukee, Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, and Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, were the others.

Bernard-Schaber said she gives the remainder of her office budget back to the state at year’s end. “It’s a small portion, but I give it back,” she said.

See how much of your tax dollars your state representatives spend on newspaper subscriptions here.

Contact reporter Ryan Ekvall at rekvall@watchdog.org, at 608-257-1382 or follow him on Twitter @Nockian.

The post Fit to print: Lawmakers read the papers, and taxpayers get the bill appeared first on Watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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