On March 1, 2013, Milwaukee Country prosecutors shut down the long running "John Doe" probe into corruption in Scott Walker's office during the time he served as Milwaukee County Executive. Six people were charged and convicted, including three former Walker staff, but no charges were brought against Walker. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm issued a brief, telling statement: "After a review of the John Doe evidence, I am satisfied that all charges that are supported by proof beyond a reasonable doubt have now been brought and concluded."
There is no doubt that Walker emerges from the scandal in a stronger position to advance his extreme legislative agenda and his plans for higher office.
Walker's recently-unveiled budget is covered with American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) fingerprints: his tax plan disproportionately benefits the top one-fifth of earners while putting a whopping $2 in the pockets of the bottom one-fifth; his school voucher program would leave 870,000 public school students with no additional funds; and his food stamp stipulations would force the needy to look for the 212,400 jobs that the governor has promised but failed to create. To top it all off, his ALEC cronies want to cover their tracks with a bill that would put a price on the public records that expose them.
Tax Breaks for the Wealthy Disguised as Support for the Middle Class
Walker kicked off his February 20 budget address by announcing what he called "a middle class tax cut" worth $343 million. He claimed the cut targets rates for lower and middle class taxpayers, but an analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau found that Walker's proposed tax cuts would primarily benefit the wealthy: the top fifth of income earners (those earning more than $100,000 per year) would get more than half of the total cuts. Taxpayers in the bottom 20% would receive a tax cut of just $2 a year.
"When the top 20% of earners in Wisconsin are receiving almost 50% of the tax break, you know this is not a middle class tax for us," says Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee).
If the cuts go into effect, raising taxes again will be a formidable task, thanks to an ALEC bill that Walker signed in January of 2011. Assembly Bill 5, which resembles the ALEC Super Majority Act, requires two-thirds support in the legislature to increase taxes. Thankfully, the legislature adopted the measure as a largely unenforceable statute rather than a constitutional amendment, but with a Republican majority, there's more than a good chance they will abide by it.
The proposed $343 million cut is the result of what Walker calls "turning Wisconsin around." "This allows us to invest in our priorities -- priorities I've talked about in every corner of our state over the past few months."
Apparently, these priorities do not include public education. In Walker's 2011-2012 budget, he cut $800 million from K-12 education, but rather than restoring some of that funding in this cycle, he is giving a handout to the wealthy and $2 per year to everyone else.
Privatizing Public Education
Those priorities are further defined by Walker's budget proposing a virtual freeze on funding for public education, but a nine percent increase for a classic ALEC agenda item: private school vouchers. This would amount to $73 million in additional funding for "vouchers" that send taxpayer funds to private and religious voucher schools.
State schools Superintendent Tony Evers says the proposed increase in voucher funding would leave the vast majority of students at a disadvantage. "Private voucher schools will receive $73 million in additional funding and spending authority, coupled with a dramatic statewide expansion," said Evers. "This means an up to $1,400 per-pupil funding increase for the 25,000 students in voucher schools, while freezing spending for the 870,000 in public schools."
The proposal would expand vouchers to any district with more than 4,000 students where two or more schools within the district receive a 'D' or 'F' grade on their state report cards. This would expand vouchers to Green Bay and Madison, two of the largest districts in the state. Struggling districts would only receive a 1% increase in aid for their failing schools, while a minority of vouchered students would benefit from a whopping 9% increase in funding.
A study that directly compared students in Milwaukee's voucher program and students in the Milwaukee Public Schools found that students in the voucher program performed worse or about the same as their public school counterparts.
The results of the study didn't faze Representative Robin Vos (R-Racine), the ALEC State Chair for Wisconsin and a vocal supporter of the voucher plans. "The governor has proposed excellent options to help students succeed at every level," said Vos. His support comes as no surprise, given that Walker's voucher plan contains elements of ALEC's Parental Choice Scholarship Accountability Act.
Voucher programs are being pushed in the state by a pair of prominent ALEC alums. Disgraced former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen is top lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, a Milwaukee-based organization promoting public school privatization. AFC is an ALEC member and is represented by Jensen on the ALEC Education Task Force, home to several public school privatization model bills. When Jensen was in the legislature, he was the ALEC State Chair. Also pushing vouchers in the state is Jeff Fitzgerald, who was an ALEC member when he was in the legislature and now lobbies for School Choice Wisconsin.
Another ALEC ally, the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, has spent $20 million to promote so-called "school choice" vouchers in Milwaukee, and has funded similar education privatization programs around the country. The Bradley Foundation has also given millions to ALEC over the years. The foundation's ties to Walker run deep: Bradley's current president and chief executive Michael Grebe chaired Walker's campaign during the 2010 gubernatorial race and the 2012 recall election.
Placing Pricey Stipulations on Food Stamps
Also on Walker's agenda is a proposal to require all "able-bodied adults" who receive food stamps (and don't have dependent children) to train or search for work in order to continue receiving state benefits under the FoodShare program. The proposal would limit Wisconsinites to three months of benefits over a three-year period unless they are participating in 20 hours per week of job training or searching.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the job-training program will cost the state $17 million. The same source tells us that Walker is 212,400 short of his promise to create 250,000 jobs, which recently prompted him to propose new ways of tracking employment data.
Walker's proposal mimics a number of ALEC model bills, such as the "TANF Applicant Job Search Program". This ALEC model legislation proposes able-bodied recipients of state welfare participate in job searching or training for a minimum of 30 hours a week in order to receive benefits, a task made extremely difficult during an economic downturn.
Walker's proposal to place requirements on receiving benefits from FoodShare was met with skepticism by Congresswoman Gwen Moore (WI-4). "Once again our governor has put his ideology before the needs of the people," said Moore. "Instead of focusing on job creation to reduce the number of those on the FoodShare program, his policy change could increase the number of hungry adults in Wisconsin... The Hunger Task Force estimates that the state would lose $82.3 million annually in federal benefits if the mandatory work requirements were implemented."
Wisconsin's FoodShare program is administered by the Department of Health, which is now led by ALEC alum Kitty Rhoades, whom Walker appointed to the position just weeks ago. She is the third ALEC alum to head a major agency in Wisconsin's Executive Branch: Walker, himself an ALEC alum, has also appointed former ALEC State Chair Mike Huebsch to head the Department of Administration, and former ALEC Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force Chair Phil Montgomery to lead the Public Services Commission.
Attack on Public Information and Transparency
One of the best tools for tracking the influence of ALEC and its member corporations is through public records requests. ALEC is a notoriously secretive operation and it is only through open records requests that CMD has been able to demonstrate the organization's role in Wisconsin policy.
A new piece of legislation could place government transparency and records access at risk. AB 26, introduced by ALEC operatives Representatives. Joan Ballweg, Chris Kapenga, and Tom Larson, among others including Democrat Josh Zepnick, would make it more expensive to access public records by charging for redaction costs. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council made a statement on the bill, which was heard in the Assembly Committee on Government Operations and State Licensing on February 27, 2013.
"The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council considers this bill a serious threat to the public's ability to obtain public information. It will allow custodians to make some records unaffordable to some requestors, and it will lead to abuse," read the statement.
Wisconsin ranks 42 in job creation in the United States, a figure that is deeply out of synch with the Upper Midwest and most of the nation. With an ALEC-inspired agenda that will have zero impact on job creation, Wisconsinites are in for more hardship.
Brendan Fischer contributed to this report.