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Connecting the dots: Center for Media and Democracy tracks ALEC’s vast legislative influence

Connecting the dots: Center for Media and Democracy tracks ALEC’s vast legislative influence

Analysis

  • Updated
Walker press conference

Gov. Scott Walker addressed the news media in March, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (left) and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. The three have been chief proponents of ALEC legislation in Wisconsin, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.

In the 2010 elections, Republicans emerged with seven more governor’s mansions. They also won control of 26 state legislatures, up from 14. In many trifecta states, where a new Republican majority won control of both houses and the governorship, an odd thing happened. A steady stream of almost identical bills — bills to defund unions, require photo IDs that make it harder for democratic constituencies to vote, bills to privatize schools and public assets, bills to enshrine corporate tax loopholes while crippling the government’s ability to raise revenue, bills to round up immigrants — were introduced and passed. An almost identical set of corporations benefited from these measures.

It is almost as if a pipeline in the basement of these state capitols ruptured simultaneously, and a flood of special-interest legislation poured out. The blowout preventer — political power-sharing — was disabled. The source of the contamination? The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Last week, the Center for Media and Democracy unveiled its ALEC Exposed website to display an archive of over 800 ALEC “model bills.” This archive will allow reporters and citizen journalists to identify the ALEC bills moving in their states.

For a partial list of Wisconsin’s ALEC members and much more detail about ALEC-designed legislation, go here.

•    •    •    •

Decades ago, ALEC targeted Wisconsin as a test case for its agenda. Tommy Thompson, who served as a state legislator from 1966-1986 and then as governor for a record 14 years, was an early ALEC member and supporter. “Myself, I always loved going to these meetings because I always found new ideas. Then I’d take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that ‘It’s mine,’ ” he told an ALEC conference in 2002.

It is now apparent that Thompson was the enthusiastic frontman for a slew of ALEC ideas and legislation — most famously “welfare to work” and “school choice.” In 1990, Milwaukee’s school voucher program for low-income children was the first in the nation, the camel’s nose under the tent for a long-term agenda with the ultimate goal being the privatization of public schools.

Wisconsin’s new governor, Scott Walker, has decided to follow in Thompson’s footsteps, pushing a half-dozen ALEC-inspired bills in his first weeks and months in office, yet remaining silent about the roots of these public policy “innovations.”

More than anyone else, three men have dominated the radical, transformative agenda in the state of Wisconsin. All three have long been ALEC members and active participants. The three are Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

Scott Walker was an active member of ALEC when he was a state legislator in the years from 1993-2002, even listing his ALEC membership in his Wisconsin Blue Book profile. As a young legislator in the 1990s, Walker worked with then-Gov. Thompson in a successful effort to pass ALEC’s “Truth in Sentencing” bill. The bill would benefit the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which housed overflow Wisconsin inmates out of state for many years. At the time the bill passed, CCA was the corporate co-chair of ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force.

Former Wisconsin Corrections administrator Walter Dickey, however, says he paid close attention to the debate over truth in sentencing in Madison. “There was never any mention that ALEC or anybody else had any involvement” in the crafting of the bill, Dickey says. The authors of the bill, their goals and interests were never disclosed to the public. Instead, their agenda was presented as in the best interests of the Wisconsin criminal justice system and taxpayers.

In 2011, Walker is drawing on his experiences as a loyal ALEC foot soldier to introduce many ALEC priority measures “by request of the governor.”

•    •    •    •

After running on a platform of jobs and economic development, Scott Fitzgerald started opening up about his big plans for the state shortly after the election in 2010. He announced to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his first effort would be a voter ID bill, seen by critics as disenfranchising traditional Democratic constituencies, like the poor, black and elderly, who are less likely to have official photo identification. Model voter ID legislation was produced by ALEC in the summer of 2009 after Barack Obama became president.

Fitzergald’s second strike? Only reporters paying close attention might have noticed a December 2010 interview in which Fitzgerald was asked about making Wisconsin a “right to work” state, or a hostile work environment for private sector unions. “I just attended an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting and I was surprised about how much momentum there was in and around that discussion, nothing like I have seen before,” Fitzgerald said enthusiastically at a WisPolitics luncheon.

This was the first, but not the last time the name of ALEC would surface in the lexicon of Wisconsin’s new world order that Democratic legislator Mark Pocan dubbed “Fitzwalkerstan.” We now know that Scott Fitzgerald has long been a member of ALEC, and served as the Wisconsin state chairman for many years. Economic interest statements show that in 2010 and 2011 he received almost $3,000 from ALEC to attend its conferences. In 2011, Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald received $1,329. The legislators loaded up on a huge variety of ALEC model bills and brought them home to Wisconsin.

Together with other ALEC members, such as powerful Joint Finance Committee Chair Robin Vos (current ALEC state chairman for Wisconsin) and Sen. Leah Vukmir, chair of the Senate Health Committee (who also serves as chair of ALEC’s Health and Human Services Task Force), the Fitzgerald brothers are rushing dozens of ALEC specials through the Legislature and onto the governor’s desk in anticipation of August recall elections for nine state senators that might turn the Senate from Republican to Democratic control. Here is a sample:

• Voter Photo Identification Legislation (AB 7): On May 19, Wisconsin passed a voter ID law introduced by Republican Rep. Jeff Stone and Sen. Joe Leibham. Stone is an ALEC member who received ALEC travel reimbursements in 2009. The legislation, a more detailed version of the ALEC Voter ID Act of 2009, would allow a narrow list of IDs for voting, including a driver’s license and state-issued ID card. According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study, about 177,000 Wisconsinites age 65 and older do not have state-issued IDs. Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicle offices are not in every county and keep irregular hours, creating more barriers to voter participation. The bill makes it particularly burdensome for college students to vote, a group who overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008. Student IDs have to be issued from an accredited public or private college, include a student’s signature and have a two-year expiration date. The 182,000 students in the University of Wisconsin System and 300,000 in state technical colleges currently do not meet this requirement.

• Budget repair bill: Walker took a cue from the ALEC corporate wish list and introduced a radical bill in February to cripple public employee unions. Wisconsin Act 10 inspired months of protests and has been subjected to a series of legal challenges.

While there is no ALEC bill that mirrors Wisconsin Act 10, the bill does comport with ALEC’s sweeping anti-union agenda, which includes decades of support for “right to work” and “paycheck protection” legislation, and other measures to disempower and defund unions. On collective bargaining, ALEC’s “Public Employee Freedom Act” declares that “an employee should be able to contract on their own terms” and “mandatory collective bargaining laws violate this freedom.” This ALEC bill and the “Public Employer Payroll Deduction Policy Act” prohibit automatic payroll deductions for union dues, a key aspect of the Walker bill.

Where is the bottom in ALEC’s race to the bottom? The “Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act” would repeal any local “living wage” ordinance like the ones in Madison and Milwaukee, and prohibit political subdivisions from enacting them in the future. The ALEC “Prevailing Wage Repeal Act” would get rid of all state prevailing wage laws that give workers engaged in public works for highways, street bridges, buildings and the like a higher salary. 

• Privatizing public schools

For 20 years, a top priority item for ALEC has been the privatization of public schools through a school voucher system. ALEC has dozens of bills related to this topic, along with books, analysis and legal opinions.

Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to implement a voucher program, using public funds to send children to private schools in 1990. Then-Gov. Thompson was seen as an innovator, and the role of ALEC was never discussed. The voucher “experiment” was limited to low-income students in the Milwaukee School District.

Ideological proponents of school privatization are now pushing to expand the Milwaukee program to other areas of the state, as well as to families of greater income.

In his budget bill proposal, Walker first proposed repealing the school voucher enrollment cap for Milwaukee and eliminating income eligibility requirements, while slashing revenue for the Milwaukee Public School system by $8.7 million. The final bill included devastating cuts, and expanded voucher schools throughout Milwaukee County and to the Racine school district, while lifting the cap on participation and the income eligibility to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

• Special Needs Scholarship Program Act (AB 11): This bill, introduced by Republican Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Michelle Litjens, would create a voucher system to enable disabled children to use public funds for private schools. There would be no limitation on parental income, however, as there is for the Milwaukee program.

Some educational experts suspect the proposal would lead to segregated voucher schools especially for special-needs children — a proposal that would fly in the face of decades of research and experience that suggests that these children are better off in regular schools, educated with their peers while receiving additional support services. The bill mirrors the ALEC bill of the same name, the “Special Needs Scholarship Program Act.” The Wisconsin Department of Public Education has objected to the bill in the strongest terms: “It strips special education students of due process rights and rights to services. It allows for the segregation of students based on disability. It will devastate funding for public education in select districts.”

• Telecommunications Modernization Act: On May 23, Walker signed into law one of the bills he requested, a radical deregulation of the telecommunications industry in Wisconsin. Under the bill, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) could no longer set telecommunication rates to keep prices low for consumers, perform audits of providers, or investigate consumer complaints. It is prohibited from regulating data services such as high-speed Internet.

The law strips away 50 years of consumer protection for landline telephone subscribers. It guts the PSC’s authority to regulate rates of basic phone service in areas with little or no competition.

The bill tracks ALEC’s “Regulatory Modernization Act,” which prohibits any commission from regulating rates and charges, terms and conditions of services, mergers or acquisitions and more. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, in 2009 and 2010, the telecommunications industry gave Walker $87,822.

He recently named former state Rep. Phil Montgomery chair of the Public Service Commission. Montgomery was ALEC’s Legislator of the Year in 2005 and formerly headed ALEC’s Telecommunication and Information Technology Task Force’s Subcommittee on Competition. AT&T serves on ALEC’s corporate private enterprise governing board and lobbied hard for the bill in Wisconsin, along with other telecommunications firm, such as Verizon, another ALEC member.

• Health insurance: Vukmir and Rep. John Nygren are seeking co-sponsors for legislation that would permit the purchase of health insurance policies from insurers not licensed in the state of the purchaser. Such policies are not subject to the mandated benefits required in all health insurance policies sold in the state of the purchaser. The legislation would permit the sale of substandard health insurance policies, thereby crowding out more comprehensive policies that cover necessary care. It would then allow the insurance commissioner to waive state mandates so state insurers could compete in the race to the bottom.

“This is a way around what they call mandates and we call consumer protections,” says Robert Kraig of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “This legislation will hollow out the state’s insurance policies and undo consumer protections and standards we have built up over years.”

The bill is based on the ALEC “Health Care Choice Act for States.” In 2010, according to the ALEC “State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obama Care,” 19 states introduced such legislation, and Wyoming enacted it.

Vukmir is the ALEC Health and Human Services Task Force co-chair for 2011. Her corporate co-chair is Guarantee Trust Life Insurance company, which sells insurance in Wisconsin and stands to benefit from the ALEC health care agenda.

Vukmir was given the Legislator of the Year award by ALEC in 2009. The ALEC award goes to “council members who have distinguished themselves by advancing, introducing and/or enacting” ALEC policies. She was recognized for “working to stop a government-run health care proposal in Wisconsin” in 2007, according to local news reports.


Editor’s note: The Capital Times has been reporting for years on the activities of the politically conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which creates model bills for legislators nationwide. Most recently reporter Shawn Doherty detailed its role in Wisconsin health care legislation, and Todd Finkelmeyer wrote about the political fallout for University of Wisconsin professor Bill Cronon when he blogged about ALEC’s influence in Wisconsin.

But the full extent of ALEC’s model bills has been available only to the group’s 2,000 legislative and 300 corporate members until now. Recently an Ohio-based activist named Aliya Rahman, who helped organize protests at ALEC’s Spring Task Force meeting in Cincinnati, was leaked more than 800 documents relating to ALEC legislation. She, in turn, contacted The Nation magazine, which teamed up with the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy to ask policy experts to analyze this never-before-seen archive. The full archive of ALEC documents is available at a new website, alecexposed.org, created by the Center for Media and Democracy.

Mary Bottari, director of the center’s Real Economy Project and BanksterUSA, has combed through the ALEC documents and written a lengthy accounting of ALEC’s influence on current and former bills in the Wisconsin Legislature and the politicians who are working closely with ALEC to do its bidding. The Capital Times presents here just a small sampling of Bottari’s work.

Reporter Dan Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently wrote about the ALEC archive and contacted many of the Republican officials mentioned in this piece, including Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Leah Vukmir, state Rep. Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, for response. Speaking for themselves or through spokespeople, the officials greatly downplayed the role of ALEC in recent Wisconsin legislation, saying bills did not come from the group or, in the case of Vukmir, that some of her original legislation was adopted by ALEC and promoted to others.

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