Scott Walker (copy)

In this July 14 photo, Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a campaign event at a Harley-Davidson dealership in Las Vegas.

Wisconsin was front-and-center at last week's annual gathering of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed conservative nonprofit that focuses on state policy.

"Wisconsin is the star of the show here," said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. "Wisconsin is mentioned so much at this convention."

Taylor has been attending ALEC conferences since 2013, following the lead of her predecessor in the state Assembly. Before he was elected to Congress, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, also a Democrat, signed up to attend ALEC conferences, looking for insight into the group known for authoring what it calls "model legislation," which is used to form bills that are increasingly popular in states under Republican control.

Although Wisconsin elected officials have been members of the organization for decades, "ALEC" became a dirty word among those on the left after the GOP wave of 2010, when Gov. Scott Walker was elected. 

As governor, some of the most contentious bills Walker has signed into law have had ALEC backing, including tort reform, castle doctrine and right-to-work. The group was also a backer of the truth-in-sentencing bill Walker helped pass into law as a state representative.

"Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation," Walker told American RadioWorks in 2002. "And probably more important than just the model legislation, (ALEC) had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation."

Walker has maintained ties with the network since the early 1990s, when he became a member as a state legislator. He delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC conference in San Diego last week, introduced by ALEC first vice chairwoman Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa. Vukmir, who was one of several speakers to introduce Walker at his campaign announcement, will be ALEC's national chairwoman next year.

Addressing the crowd, Walker touched on themes that have been central to his stump speech: his record of defunding Planned Parenthood and passing voter ID legislation, and a call to nix the United States' pending nuclear deal with Iran. He also reiterated his support for taxpayer-funded private voucher schools.

Walker winked at his past battles with organized labor, recounting his victory in a 2012 recall election.

"I understand you had a few protesters yesterday. For us that's just getting warmed up," Walker said, according to the Associated Press.

Taylor came away from the conference feeling that public education and the Environmental Protection Agency are "the two main enemies of ALEC right now."

Under Walker and Attorney General Brad Schimel, Wisconsin joined a federal lawsuit challenging EPA limits on carbon emissions.

Taylor said conference attendees discussed independent charter schools, an area familiar to her from her state budget work on the Joint Finance Committee. A provision inserted into the budget will allow the University of Wisconsin System president, the Waukesha County executive, tribal colleges and Gateway Technical College to authorize independent charter schools.

Taylor said the Joint Finance Committee was "kind of a microcosm" of ALEC, noting that several Republican members of Joint Finance are also ALEC members.

"So many discussions I hear at ALEC are the same ones we had over the budget," Taylor said.

ALEC has lauded Wisconsin as a success story in the years since Walker took office. 

The organization released its 2015 "Rich States, Poor States" report in April, ranking each state's economic outlook based on 15 policy variables including tax rates and labor policies.

Wisconsin ranked 13th in economic outlook for 2015, up from 17th last year. But the report's organizers said Wisconsin is likely to move up the ranks next year, because its passage of a right-to-work law will be taken into account.

"Wisconsin is constantly being touted as a place where things are going right, which is very interesting considering our economic growth and job creation have not kept pace," Taylor said.

An article by The Guardian's Ed Pilkington noted that, should Walker be successful in his presidential campaign, he would be the first ALEC alumnus in the Oval Office.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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