Despite its name, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance doesn’t fret the arrival of April “tax time.”
Todd Berry, president for almost two dozen years of the 85-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to policy research and citizenship education, prefers to think of the alliance as an alternative to fake news.
“Taxpayers, voters, school students, state and local officials, and the press all benefit from our work,” said Berry, a former marketing manager for Jones Dairy Farm in Fort Atkinson. “In an age of shrinking news staffs and highly partisan careerist politics, it is increasingly difficult for the public and press to get objective, understandable, factual information about their government.”
The alliance, Berry said, does research and provides the resulting information in vehicles the average citizen can understand. Those channels include a monthly magazine, a biweekly newsletter, a civics text that soon will be published in its 19th edition, annual municipal and school finance guides, civic lectures, website and social media.
Q. How has your role in the Wisconsin political landscape changed in the last five to 10 years? Is there more or less of a hunger for “impartial” data?
A. In Wisconsin, the political landscape has evolved over the past 30 to 40 years with the advent of the full-time professional legislature, the centralization of power in the offices of legislative party leaders and the governor, and the increasingly take-no-prisoners partisanship that has developed among activists on the far left and far right. Respect, kindness, polite behavior, decorum are much less evident in capitol buildings today.
This has resulted in the last five to 10 years in the increasing inability of government at state and federal levels to work through and solve difficult problems. That gridlock and dysfunction has led to increased citizen alienation from public institutions. Regardless of party or ideology, both the 2008 and 2016 presidential elections were really protest elections with voters begging for problem-solving, for results, and willing to take a chance on anyone who might deliver that.
Q. Are you experiencing a decline in financial support for what you do?
A. We are a nonprofit 501(c)(3) and like all charitable organizations, every year presents new challenges. The irony is that “white-hat” truth-telling and fact-finding are not what most easily motivate financial giving in the public arena. Reflecting our politics today, it is anger and emotion and simplistic answers that move many donors to act.
For us, this is complicated by the fact that what we offer is a public good. Anyone can request most of our work for free: our civic and community lectures are free, part of our public service mission; serving as a resource to media reporters and editors is free; answering inquiries from citizens and local officials is free. People can benefit from much of our work without having to pay for it.
And although our research, writing, and speaking remain mostly free as part of our commitment to public service, it costs to provide all those services.
Another challenge for many local charities is the business mergers and acquisitions that strip the state of company headquarters, civic leadership and a commitment to finance state and local nonprofits.
Q. What does nonpartisan mean anymore?
A. Our view of nonpartisanship has not changed for the last 85 years. We take the responsibility of being a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) very seriously. Internally, staff members are required to have no links to any kind of partisan or political activity, other than voting. We actively “police” each other’s work to ensure that it is objective. We do no lobbying, no advocacy, no electioneering, no endorsing of candidates. We affiliate with no other organizations — national, state or local — and turn down all requests for project collaboration.
The only time we are accused of being partisan is when we put out factual information that might put an incumbent politician and his or her allies in a bad light. Emperors do not like to be shown wearing no clothes. We have been attacked from the extremes of both left and right.
We always are willing to provide information to every candidate for office, regardless of affiliation. The 2002 campaign remains a great example. Pre-primary, the campaigns of the multiple Democratic gubernatorial candidates came in for discussions and information; so did the incumbent Republican’s campaign. The libertarian candidate, Ed Thompson, came multiple times in person to talk with us.
Q. How is the election of Donald Trump as president changing the way Wisconsin enacts public policy? A. It is too early to tell whether Trump is having or will have any effect on policy-making. It will depend on what happens with federal tax, fiscal, and health policy, and those will be decisions that ultimately rest with Congress and not the president.
Q. What word best describes the mood of Wisconsin residents when you go out to address groups?
A. Curious. Refreshing. Appreciative. People are hungry for reliable information, candor and honesty that they don’t feel they’re getting from politicians or much of the media. I am always struck by the eagerness of audiences to know more about their government, and the appreciation they show after my colleagues and I speak.
Q. What troubles you about the current legislative system in Wisconsin, if anything?
A. There are policies in state law that exacerbate electoral politics at the legislative level. Both parties have refused to reform the redistricting process when they had the power to do so — Republicans, post-2010; Democrats, post-2008. Independent drawing of constituency lines that ensured that districts were compact and followed municipal and county lines, violating as few civil boundaries as possible, would make a significant difference.
An even more important factor, though, is the voting process. Partisan primary elections — the La Follette legacy gone terribly wrong — encourage extreme candidates, both left and right, accentuating partisanship, division and gridlock. The Washington state blanket-primary approach would address this. An alternative would be rank voting where there would be no need for primaries; we simply rank our candidate preferences, with computer processing producing the choice most acceptable to the most voters.
Q. Who are one or two of your favorite Wisconsin political figures — alive or dead — and why?
A. Warren Knowles for his grace and magnanimity. Pat Lucey for his courage to be a governor willing to lead and make big reforms, some of which worked and some of which proved less successful. Lee Dreyfus for his ability to see far into the future — and be proven correct. Tony Earl and Tommy Thompson for being the last governors of their respective parties who believed in working across party lines, respecting opponents and attempting to solve problems.
Q. Where is the alliance heading in the next five years or so?
A. The need for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has never been greater. The erosion of news media resources, the extreme polarization and professionalization of politics, and the decline of school civics instruction have left the public desperate for reliable, factual information about government. We must work harder than ever to fill that void.