Wisconsin's 2011-2012 legislative session saw the introduction of 32 bills or budget provisions reflecting American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model legislation -- including Governor Scott Walker's contentious attack on public sector collective bargaining, voter ID legislation, and bills that make it harder for Americans to hold corporations accountable when their products injure or kill -- and 19 of those proposals became law.
What pieces of the ALEC playbook might be on the agenda for the 2013-2014 session, which began this week?
(1) Special Needs Scholarship Act
In 2011, ALEC member Rep. Michelle Litjens introduced AB 110 (which closely resembled the ALEC Special Needs Scholarship Program Act) to divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools to subsidize private, for-profit instruction for children with disabilities and forfeit the protections provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including the right to a "free, appropriate education." The private school accepting the student would receive the aid for the student and the student's former school would lose it. The bill did not pass but legislators are expected to reintroduce the bill this term.
ALEC has been tracking the passage of the Special Needs Scholarship Act across the country.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Education 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. It will result in the largest expansion of private school regulation ever seen in Wisconsin and, at the end of the day, no one will have any data to show if it resulted in a better education."
Lobbying hard on the bill in 2011 was the American Federation for Children (AFC), the school privatization group organized and funded by the billionaire DeVos family and whose chief lobbyist is former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. AFC is also an ALEC member, and Jensen represents the organization on the ALEC Education Task Force and brings legislation for adoption as "model" bills. Open records requests show that on May 17, 2011, AFC lobbyist Brian Pleva emailed staffers for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, Representative Robin Vos, and Senator Alberta Darling with a copy of the ALEC "model" Special Needs Scholarship Program Act.
In the recall race, American Federation for Children was Walker's third-biggest PAC supporter, spending $555,000.
(2) Voucher schools
Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine), the ALEC State Chair for Wisconsin and the new Assembly Speaker, has indicated that he plans to expand Wisconsin's private school voucher or "choice" program across the state.
In 1990, Milwaukee was one of the first cities in the nation to implement a school voucher program, based on ALEC model legislation and passed under former Governor Tommy Thompson, who had been involved with ALEC since its early years. Taxpayers have been paying to send low-income students to private and religious schools ever since. In the 2011 budget bill, Governor Walker attempted to expand the school voucher system state-wide, but only succeeded in expanding the program to the Racine area.
Last Spring, the first direct comparison between voucher schools and public schools showed that kids attending private schools on a taxpayer-funded voucher performed worse. "The scores released by the state Department of Public Instruction cast a shadow on the overall quality of the 21-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program," the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.
A proposal to expand the Milwaukee-Racine voucher program statewide would likely incorporate elements of ALEC's "Parental Choice Scholarship Accountability Act," as well as different versions of the bill which alter eligibility requirements.
The Milwaukee-based Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has given millions to ALEC over the years, is also a major funder of so-called "school choice" initiatives nationwide. The Bradley Foundation's president and CEO, Michael Grebe, chaired Walker's campaigns in 2010 and during the 2012 recall.
(3) Tax "Reform"
Assembly Speaker/ALEC State Chair Vos also indicates he plans to reform Wisconsin's tax code in the next session. Though he has recently discussed plans to cut taxes for middle-income taxpayers, just a few months ago he discussed plans for a "flatter" tax and indicated the progressive tax was outdated.
ALEC has dozens of bills to make it harder for government to raise revenue and provide quality services, but has specifically pushed flat income taxes, explaining that the "flat rate system is much preferable to a progressive rate structure."
Last session, the legislature passed Wisconsin Act 9, "The Super-Majority Act" -- introduced at the request of Governor Walker -- which prohibits the state from raising taxes without a two-thirds majority of the legislature. The legislation mirrors the ALEC bill of the same name, "The Super-Majority Act." Wisconsin dodged a bullet when leadership decided to draft the bill as a statute and not a constitutional amendment, because as a state law change to legislative rules it is not legally enforceable if the legislature chooses not to follow it -- avoiding disasters faced by states like California, which added such a provision to the state constitution and has made it almost impossible for the state to raise revenue. The measure has severely damaged the California school system, which has dropped in national rankings from among the top to among the worst, 48th in many surveys of student achievement.
(4) Voter ID
In May 2011, Rep. Vos -- then-chair of the Joint Finance Committee -- stopped all discussion of the budget to take up a non-budgetary matter: a Voter ID bill. Like dozens of other states that introduced restrictive legislation to require ID at the polls since 2011, Wisconsin's voter ID bill reflected the ALEC "model" voter ID act.
In the months after the bill was passed, two separate courts would block the legislation as an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote. Dane County Judge David Flanagan found the state's strict voter ID requirement "tells more than 300,000 Wisconsin voters who do not now have an acceptable form of photo identification that they cannot vote unless they first obtain a photo ID card."
"The people's fundamental right of suffrage preceded and gave birth to our Constitution," Dane County District Judge Richard Niess wrote in his earlier decision striking down Wisconsin's voter ID law as unconstitutional. "Not the other way around."
But now-Assembly Speaker Vos has recently said that if the Wisconsin Constitution protects voting rights, then the constitution should be changed.
In a December appearance on WISN's Up Front With Mike Gousha, when asked if he would support a constitutional amendment to require photo ID at the polls, Rep. Vos said, "Yes, I would favor that." But, he added, "it also takes two sessions, so that wouldn't be until 2015, even if we did begin that process."
(5) Right to Work
Ever since his attack on public sector workers, Wisconsinites have been wondering whether Governor Walker and the legislature will introduce anti-union "right to work" legislation for private sector workers, which undermines unions by allowing workers to opt-out of paying the costs of union representation. ALEC has pushed the bill for decades, most recently in Michigan, where that state's bill tracked the ALEC model almost word-for-word.
In early 2010, Walker was filmed having a conversation with Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who asked Walker if he will "work on these unions" and make Wisconsin a "red" state and "become a Right to Work" state. Walker replied that the "first step" will be "to divide and conquer" Wisconsin unions through a budget bill dealing with public sector workers. One month later Walker introduced his "budget repair bill" to severely limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees (based in part on ALEC model legislation), inspiring months of historic protests and an unprecedented recall campaign.
But given Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's about-face regarding his position on right-to-work legislation and the ongoing push for the law in Wisconsin by David Koch's Americans for Prosperity, Wisconsin labor leaders are worried.
More of the Same for Wisconsin?
After a contentious few years in Wisconsin, the state's Republicans have pledged moderation and bipartisanship this term. We'll believe it when we see it. But the numbers suggest that steamrolling the ALEC agenda through the Republican-controlled legislature has hardly paid off: Wisconsin still ranks 42nd out of the 50 states in private sector job creation.