As the first half of 2011 has revealed, Wisconsin is not a moderate "purple" state, but a state divided between staunchly "blue" progressives and righteous "red" right-wingers. That rift is particularly apparent in legislative conflicts over the criminal justice system, a debate spurred by corporate interests represented in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and perpetuated by ALEC legislative members, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Wisconsin's history and public policy reflects the red/blue divide. It is the state that gave birth to the Republican Party, which supported slavery abolition, and the John Birch Society, which opposed the civil rights movement. In the first half of the 20th Century, the state elected both progressive hero Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette and right-wing extremist Joe McCarthy. It is the state that elected both former Senator Russ Feingold (D) and Representative Paul Ryan (R).
Wisconsin also produced Paul Weyrich, who in 1973 co-founded both the Heritage Foundation and ALEC (and in subsequent years, Free Congress and Moral Majority). Weyrich's ALEC, it seems, has been a factory for many of the state's most recent right-wing policy initiatives.
Common Cause has asked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for possibly violating its tax-exempt status. The request came one day after the Center for Media and Democracy unveiled "ALEC Exposed," a website uncovering more than 800 model bills created by the corporate-funded organization.
This CMD Special Report cuts through the PR spin and exposes the funding and spending of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Almost 98% of ALEC's funding comes from corporations like Exxon Mobil, corporate "foundations" like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, or trade associations like the pharmaceutical industry's PhRMA and sources other than "legislative dues." Those funds help subsidize legislators' trips to ALEC meetings, where they are wined, dined, and handed "model" legislation to make law in their state. Through ALEC, corporations vote on "model" legislation with politicians behind closed doors. The special report focuses on ALEC's funding. Learn more at ALEC Exposed.
To try and transform their image among the American public, tobacco companies have been trying to keep much of their lobbying and political donations out of view. The companies now channel campaign donations and lobbying expenses through harder-to-track organizations connected to the candidates they favor, like leadership PACs and 527 groups. Contributions directly to candidates and the committees that support them have decreased by more than $6 million between the 2002 and 2010 election cycles. "One thing the tobacco industry has done is stay out of the public view and disguise its efforts in politics," said Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. The two highest-ranking Republican leaders in the House of Representatives -- Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) -- are top recipients of tobacco industry money. In the 2010 election cycle, Boehner took almost $50,000 from tobacco interests, and Cantor took $27,850. Boehner, a smoker, voted against the Food and Drug Administration's regulation of tobacco, calling it a "boneheaded idea." Cantor voted in favor of the bill. Altria Group, one of Cantor's biggest campaign contributors, is the parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris -- the tobacco company that planned and helped draft the regulation, and thus the only company that supported it.
In another win for well-connected right-wing interests, Wisconsin Rep. Robin Vos (R-63) squeezed a last-minute provision into the budget on Friday, June 3 that moves Wisconsin towards re-introducing bail bondsmen (and bounty hunters) to the state, a corruptive practice that has been prohibited since 1979. Like much of the dairy state’s recent legislative activity, this latest effort is smudged with the fingerprints of the American Legislative Exchange Council and well-funded lobbying interests.
Americans for Prosperity North Carolina is running deceptive robo-calls in predominantly African-American voting districts in North Carolina to try and drum up support for House Bill 810, a measure that loosens regulations on payday lenders and that is backed by financial interests. In the call, a woman identifies herself as "Joan with Americans for Prosperity North Carolina." "Joan" then tells call recipients they can "help create local jobs by supporting hometown lenders" by contacting Democratic House Representative Winkie Wilkins and asking him to support HB 810. "Joan" says the HB 810 will help "hometown lenders" and increase access to credit for "small businesses and families." The call does not mention that the bill raises the amount of interest lenders can charge on small loans from 25 to 36 percent, and provides for new fees and other measures that increase lender profits. The Center for Responsible Lending finds that the additional interest would cost North Carolina consumers between $50 million and $70 million, and that two thirds of that amount would accrue to CitiFinancial and American General, two big financial companies that have already received federal bailout money.
After Exxon Mobil posted first-quarter 2011 profits of $10.7 billion -- $6.3 billion more than it earned last year by this time -- the company put out a defensive statement arguing that it is not to blame for gasoline exceeding $4 around the country. Instead, the company blamed skyrocketing gas and oil prices on the U.S. government, saying Exxon makes about seven cents on a gallon of gasoline, while state and federal governments collect 40 to 60 center a gallon in taxes. Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry's lobbying group, spun his industry's record income as a positive, saying high oil company profits signal a stronger U.S. economy. Gerard said Americans "should be proud" of a high-earning oil industry, since it supports millions of jobs and provides income for retirees in the form of profits paid on shares in people's retirement accounts. Exxon vice president Ken Cohen portrayed the push to eliminate $4 billion in government subsidies for the industry as an attempt to raise taxes on the industry, saying the subsidies help keep jobs from being exported to other countries.
One of the reasons I wanted to return to journalism after a long career as an insurance company PR man was to keep an eye on the implementation of the new health reform law. Many journalists who covered the reform debate have moved on, and some consider the writing of regulations to implement the legislation boring and of little interest to the public.
But insurance company lobbyists know the media are not paying much attention. And so they are able to influence what the regulations actually look like -- and how the law will be enforced -- with little scrutiny, much less awareness.
Rumors have been circulating about a little-known initiative to subject Wisconsin local governments to "stress tests" and other new constraints. Many believe the proposal resembles the "martial law" bill that was recently passed in Michigan, which allows the state government to dissolve local governments in a "fiscal emergency," and worry that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or his friends in the legislature could be cooking up a similar plan.
Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare would accelerate a trend started several years ago by corporate CEOs and their political allies to shift ever-increasing amounts of risk from Big Business and the government to workers and retirees.
If enacted, the Ryan plan would represent a windfall of unprecedented proportions for insurance corporations and other businesses.
For millions of average Americans, many of whom already are finding it impossible to save for retirement, it would represent financial calamity. The nation's middle class would pay dearly for Ryan's proposed shredding of the social safety net that Medicare currently provides.