Wisconsin Legislators Jetting Off on Corporate-Funded Trip to Develop Special Interest Legislation

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 28, 2012
CONTACT: Brendan Fischer

MADISON, WI -- Several Wisconsin legislators are attending this week's conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) at the Grand Hyatt in Washington D.C., and likely doing so on corporate-funded "scholarships," which the Center for Media and Democracy believes violate state ethics and lobbying laws. The three-day meeting, held November 28-30, will bring state legislators together with corporate lobbyists and special interests to craft "model" bills -- many of which will likely be introduced in the ALEC-majority Wisconsin legislature in the session that begins in January.

Earlier this year, CMD filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Board alleging the "scholarship" program that allows corporate interests to fund legislators' travel and hotel expenses to ALEC meetings violates the state's gift ban. Neighboring Minnesota banned the so-called "scholarship" program many years ago. As detailed in "Buying Influence," an October 2012 report by CMD, DBA Press, and Common Cause, between 2006 and 2010 Wisconsin legislators received at least $116,700 in corporate-funded flights and hotel rooms.

Those corporate-funded gifts correspond with a surge in ALEC-inspired special interest legislation. Some of the most controversial legislation introduced in the Wisconsin Capitol in recent years has ALEC roots, including parts of Governor Scott Walker's anti-union Act 10, the state's unconstitutional voter ID law, efforts to bar suits for Wisconsin deaths from FDA-approved drugs and devices along with other so-called tort "reform," and the "Title Pledge Act" whose introduction resulted in $24,000 in campaign contributions to Wisconsin legislators from ALEC member Loanmax. It also includes the Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, which was promoted in Wisconsin by ALEC member American Federation for Children. Former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen represents that Betsy DeVos-funded organization at ALEC meetings.

This month's annual ALEC meeting caps a year of controversy surrounding the organization's political agenda and its tax-exempt status. ALEC came under particularly intense scrutiny for its national drive to promote the "Stand Your Ground" gun law that for weeks shielded the killer of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin from prosecution. A bill that shares some of the operative provisions of that ALEC-approved law, dubbed the "Castle Doctrine," also passed in Wisconsin last year. Similarly, ALEC has faced intense controversy over its role in legislation to make it harder for American citizens to vote, through restrictive "voter ID" legislation.

ALEC has been the subject of multiple IRS complaints alleging that it has violated its charitable 501(c)(3) status by acting primarily as a conduit for corporate interests to lobby state legislators, thereby allowing these special interests to write-off their lobbying expenses as a charitable deduction. And in recent months, five Wisconsin legislators tried to shield their ALEC-related emails from open records requests, and only released the records to settle a state lawsuit filed by the Center for Media and Democracy and Common Cause.

The ALEC State Co-Chair for Wisconsin in 2011-2012, Rep. Robin Vos, has been promoted to Assembly Speaker, and one of the other state legislator Co-Chairs, Rep. Scott Suder, is Assembly Majority Leader. There is precedent for leadership within ALEC leading to leadership roles in Wisconsin government. One ALEC State Co-Chair in the previous term, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, became Senate Majority Leader in 2011-2012, and his 2009-2010 ALEC State Co-Chair, former Rep. Mike Huebsch, became head of the Department of Administration.

Sen. Leah Vukmir is the third ALEC State State Co-Chair. She also sits on the ALEC National Board of Directors, and is the public sector chair of the ALEC Health & Human Services Task Force, serving alongside a lobbyist for the insurance industry. The press and public are barred from the ALEC's task force meetings where legislators and lobbyists vote to approve "model" bills.

Dozens of other Wisconsin legislators are also ALEC members.

Which of these state legislators are in DC this week? Which ALEC firm bankrolled their flight? What corporate-sponsored bills will they be bringing back to Wisconsin?

When Sen. Fitzgerald was interviewed after ALEC's 2010 post-election meeting, before ALEC was engulfed in controversy, he told press that he had never seen such enthusiasm for so-called "right to work" legislation, a bill Governor Walker subsequently promised billionaire Diane Hendricks he would push after his "divide and conquer" efforts to tie his (ALEC-related) union-busting to the budget bill. What will ALEC legislators enthusiastically bring back to Wisconsin to push with their newly regained majority in the state Senate after their secret meetings with corporate lobbyists at the ALEC conference this week?

We urge state reporters to ask Wisconsin legislators about how their travel was paid for this trip, who paid for their dinners and parties in DC, and what bills they discussed as part of the ALEC agenda for 2013 at the ALEC meeting this week.


The author listed as "PRwatch Editors" is for reports attributable to CMD's editors or guest authors.