Here's the deal: Help limit federal spending, balance the budget--and win two airline tickets to anywhere in the country.
Roger Fortney, a Madison businessman angry over huge budget deficits, thought it was a good way to run a petition drive.
Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), the main target of Fortney's drive, thought it wasn't.
Now even Fortney isn't so sure.
Last month Fortney, 51, and three friends formed the Wisconsin Committee for Sensible Taxation, a strongly committed but apparently short-lived group pushing for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
Since then they have spent $2,600 of their own money, given away as much as $1,600 more and come under fire from Kastenmeier for their "gimmick" approach to grass-roots lobbying.
Fortney has been obsessed with the proposed amendment since he got a brochure in the mail from a Washington lobbying group. It was the first he had heard of the issue, and to his amazement he found that hardly any of his friends and neighbors knew anything about it, either.
He called the office of his congressman, Kastenmeier, and was told that Kastenmeier opposed the budget amendment. Fortney thought Kastenmeier would change his mind if he knew his constitutents favored the measure, and he reasoned that the thing to do would be to mount a petition drive, giving people an opportunity "to stand up and be counted for something that's really worthwhile."
He hit upon the idea of a drawing for a free airline trip because he feared people would simply throw away a newspaper ad soliciting their signature for a petition.
When Fortney went to a Madison newspaper to place a full-page advertisement, he was told that political advertisements have to be signed by someone. That's when he decided to form a committee.
"I said to call it the Wisconsin Committee for Sensible Taxation, and I went and got three friends to form the committee," he said. "It was just the four of us."
The ad, which ran Sunday, March 18, invited readers to sign the committee's petition and become eligible to win two round-trip tickets on Republic Airlines from Madison to anywhere in the United States that Republic goes.
The ad also included clip-out coupons--addressed to Kastenmeier and Wisconsin Sens. William Proxmire (D) and Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R), calling on them to vote for the budget amendment.
Fortney and his friends expected 10,000 responses. They got 730, some of which included money they had not solicited and which they can't keep because the informal committee of friends is not a registered lobbying group.
They did not expect Kastenmeier's reaction. Last week, the congressman--who received a large number of the coupons, even though sending the coupons was not required to win the prize--issued a derisive statement referring to the "gimmick offer" of plane tickets.
The committee, he said, "must not have much confidence in the level of popular support for its position. Otherwise, it would not feel compelled to make this kind of offer."
Fortney's brainchild didn't even impress some of those who signed his petition, including the winner of the free tickets.
"I even forgot the contest was a part of it," said Larry Chatman, an insurance agent from nearby McFarland, Wis. "I just figured the best way to solve our economic problems and drive down inflation was to balance the federal budget."
Fortney now says he's sorry he ran the contest. The drawing, he fears, may have detracted from the cause.
Meanwhile, Chatman has until April 15 to decide where to go with the tickets. "We're all hoping he'll go to Milwaukee," said Fortney, who is splitting the cost of the trip with his three friends. "The worst thing would be if he goes to Los Angeles. . . . ."