By Brendan Fischer and Mary Bottari
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker will address the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in San Diego this July.
Walker’s speech at ALEC will be a reunion of sorts. Walker was an ALEC member as a state legislator in the 1990s, and the agenda that Walker has championed throughout his long political career has closely tracked the policies promoted by ALEC and its corporate funders, despite public opposition to many of those measures.
More than 200 corporations and a quarter of state legislators belong to ALEC, where corporations vote as equals with state legislators on "model" bills before they are introduced in legislatures to become binding law. The group receives 98 percent of its funding from corporations like Shell Oil, Peabody Coal, and Altria/Phillip Morris, and from sources like the Koch family foundations, and many of the “model bills” that it has promoted – from prison privatization to environmental deregulation -- directly benefit the financial interests of its funders.
If Walker is successful in his presidential bid, he would be the first ALEC alum to take the oval office.
Walker Has Been Delivering for ALEC for Decades
As a young legislator representing Wauwatosa, a majority-white suburb adjoining majority-minority Milwaukee, Scott Walker carved out a popular “tough on crime” niche. He chaired the Assembly Committee on Corrections and the Courts, and worked with fellow ALEC member Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in a successful effort to pass ALEC's Truth in Sentencing bill in 1998, which eliminated parole and early release, and had the effect of exploding prison populations. He also sponsored an array of bills to impose mandatory minimum sentences on an array of non-violent offenses, and even to introduce chain gangs and prison labor.
Rep. Walker would claim that he was the author of Truth in Sentencing, yet at the time did not disclose to Wisconsin residents that the legislation actually came from ALEC.
Walker also didn’t disclose that private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut (now GEO Group) were funders of ALEC and had representatives on the ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force.
It was only years later that Walker acknowledged the ALEC connections, in a 2002 interview with American Radio Works, which is associated with National Public Radio.
"Many of us, myself included, were members of ALEC," he said.
"Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation," Walker said in the interview, acknowledging that CCA and other ALEC funders stood to profit from tough-on-crime bills and prison privatization.
And Walker was an enthusiastic supporter of private prisons as an ALEC member. At the same time that he was pushing bills like Truth in Sentencing that grew prison populations, the young legislator was pushing to privatize the state’s prison systems.
“The ink on Thompson’s signature [on Truth in Sentencing] was barely dry when Rep. Scott Walker (R-Wauwatosa) called for 3,000 more beds to house state prisoners,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote at the time.
Not long after Truth in Sentencing became law, Walker introduced a bill to open the state to private prisons: “it only makes sense that we allow a private firm to build and operate an accredited facility in our own state,” he said.
Walker admitted to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1997 that he and Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen–then the ALEC State Chair for Wisconsin--had met with representatives of ALEC funder Wackenhut, and that ALEC funder CCA had also visited Wisconsin in a quest to build for-profit prisons in the state.
Ultimately, bills to privatize Wisconsin prisons failed to become law, although the state did house prisoners in privately-run out-of-state facilities for many years.
Former Wisconsin Corrections Administrator Walter Dickey says he paid close attention to the debate over Truth in Sentencing and prison privatization in Madison, and "there was never any mention that ALEC or anybody else had any involvement" in the crafting of the bill.
The authors of the bill, their goals, and interests were never disclosed to the public. Instead, their agenda was presented as in the best interests of the Wisconsin criminal justice system and taxpayers.
The impact of Walker’s ALEC-inspired sentencing legislation has been disastrous. The state now spends more on prisons then it does on higher education. Wisconsin has the country's highest rate of African-American men behind bars, nearly double the national average.
After Walker left the Assembly in 2002 to become Milwaukee County Executive, the state legislature began rolling-back his truth-in-sentencing law.
But when Walker entered the governor's office in 2011, he reversed this progress and pushed for legislation fully restoring the ALEC truth-in-sentencing requirements, despite the costs to taxpayers associated with incarcerating more prisoners for more time (approximately $32,000 each year) and despite claiming Wisconsin was "broke."
As County Executive, Privatization Reflected ALEC Priorities
As Milwaukee County Executive, Walker continued to promote the policies promoted by ALEC, particularly privatization and anti-union measures.
In 2009, for example, Walker declared an economic emergency in Milwaukee County and used his special authority to lay off the union security workers at the county courthouse. He then replaced them with Wackenhut officers at a time when the firm was already under heavy criticism for failing to protect the public while patrolling the Milwaukee transit system.
In 2011, an arbitrator reversed Walker's outsourcing of courthouse security and the county ended up having to cover back pay for the wrongfully laid off union workers, costing taxpayers an extra $430,000.
As Governor, Walker Pushed ALEC Agenda “Straight Out of the Gates”
After Walker entered the governor’s office in 2011, he quickly pushed many ALEC priority measures "by request of the Governor." In his first year, Walker signed 19 ALEC bills into law, which went after unions, preempted paid sick days bills, enacted voter ID restrictions, and made it harder to hold corporations accountable in the courts.
The first bill Walker called for upon taking office was Senate Bill 1 (which became Act 2), an “omnibus” bill that, as the Center for Media and Democracy first reported, drew on numerous ALEC model bills to change liability rules and make it harder for Wisconsin families to hold corporations accountable when their products or activities cause injury or death.
When asked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel if Governor Walker relied upon ALEC legislation when putting together this “tort reform” bill, Walker’s press secretary Cullen Werwie replied “absolutely not.”
Yet the bill clearly reflected several pieces of ALEC model legislation, and while it was pending in the legislature, ALEC sent an email to Wisconsin members stating that ALEC “supports this legislation which includes numerous provisions that reflect ALEC's civil justice reform policy and model legislation.” The bill’s lead sponsor was ALEC Civil Justice Task Force member Sen. Rich Zipperer, who would leave the legislature the following year to become Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff and senior legal counsel.
After Act 2 became law, ALEC issued a press release commending Walker and the legislature “for their immediate attention to reforming the state’s legal system.” A few months later, the ALEC Civil Justice Task Force held a presentation on the measures titled “Wisconsin: Straight Out of the Gates,” to laud Walker and the legislature’s new Republican majority for quickly implementing the ALEC agenda.
Walker also pushed $800 million in tax cuts that have primarily benefitted the wealthy and corporations, leading to big budget shortfalls and massive cuts to the university system. Those cuts were celebrated by ALEC, which ranked the state number one in tax cuts for 2014.
Other bills Governor Walker requested in his first term that incorporated parts of the ALEC agenda include:
• Act 1 (Health Savings Accounts), a tax break that shifts cost burdens to individual policy holders;
• Act 9 (Super Majority Act), which would allow a minority of legislators to block a majority vote to raise taxes (supported by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, a long-time ALEC member);
• SB 13 (the Drug Liability Act), which would bar almost all suits by Wisconsin residents if a drug or medical device kills or injures a member of their family;
• Act 93 (the Trespasser Responsibility Act), which limits a property owner’s liability for injuries to another; Act 22 (Telecommunications Modernization Act), which deregulates the telecommunications industry;
• AB 14 (Interest Rate Judgment Act), which would have reduced the interest rate on court-ordered payments for Wisconsin families injured or killed by corporations; and
• Act 21 (Economic Impact Statement Act), which places hurdles on promulgating regulations, including regulations to ensure cleaner water and air for Wisconsin families.
Walker continued to push ALEC agenda items in the coming years, particularly education privatization measures – and often by way of the governor’s biennial state budget, which limits public discussion and debate.
Walker’s 2013-2015 budget included several ALEC-inspired measures to transform and privatize the public school system, with provisions limiting local school board oversight for charter schools, expanding "voucher" programs, and creating new teaching licenses for individuals with no education background.
His 2015-2017 budget called for cutting $127 million from K-12 public schools, and at the same time spending millions on expanding “vouchers” to send taxpayers funds to private schools, and creating a new voucher program for students with disabilities.
Divide and Conquer
Just days after Walker was first sworn-in as governor in January 2011, he spoke frankly about his plans to "divide and conquer" Wisconsin unions in a conversation with billionaire GOP financier Diane Hendricks, who is now on the board of the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, a major funder of ALEC.
“Any chance we'll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work [state]?,” Hendricks asks Walker, in a conversation that was videotaped by a documentary filmmaker and released the following year.
Walker replies: “Well, we're going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer . . . That opens the door once we do that.”
A few weeks later, Walker introduced his signature union-busting bill, the incredibly controversial Act 10, which had roots in ALEC model legislation. A key element of Act 10, which prohibits the state from collecting union dues from public sector employees, reflects ALEC's Public Employer Payroll Deduction Policy Act.
In early 2015, not long after Walker started his full second term in office, he fulfilled the second step of his divide-and-conquer plan: he signed a so-called “right to work” bill that took aim at private sector unions, despite having pledged that the legislation wouldn’t come to his desk. The bill was a word-for-word copy of the ALEC “Right to Work Act.”
All told, both measures will lower incomes for some 500,000 Wisconsin workers.
And it is not over. Wisconsin Senator Leah Vukmir, the treasurer of ALEC’s national board, is pushing an ALEC-inspired bill to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, which would have the effect of lowering wages in the high-skill construction industry.
Preempting Paid Sick Days
In 2008, Milwaukee, Wisconsin became the third U.S. city — after San Francisco and Washington, DC — to guarantee paid sick leave for workers, thanks to a referendum overwhelmingly approved by over 70 percent of the city’s voters.
Yet just months after Walker became governor, he signed a bill eliminating the ability of Milwaukee and other cities to allow workers to earn paid sick leave.
"This law removes another barrier in the road to creating 250,000 private sector jobs by 2015," Walker said at the time.
Yet crushing local control, like busting unions and slashing taxes for the rich, didn’t lead to the promised economic growth. Walker barely met half of his pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, and Wisconsin’s job creation lags its neighboring states.
Although Wisconsin’s bill to “preempt” local paid sick day initiatives did nothing for job creation, it was great for the bottom line of big restaurant chains, and a few months after Walker signed the legislation, it was brought to ALEC's August 2011 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, and shared at the Labor and Business Regulation Subcommittee of the ALEC Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development Task Force.
At the time, ALEC's Labor and Business Regulation Subcommittee was co-chaired by YUM! Brands, Inc., which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Attendees were given complete copies of Wisconsin bill as a model for state override.
Legislators were also handed a target list and map of state and local paid sick leave policies prepared by ALEC member the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Both YUM! and the NRA have been leaders in the fight to stop paid sick days bills across the country.
Since that meeting, paid sick leave preemption bills have spread across the country, in most cases sponsored by ALEC members. Eleven states now have stripped local governments of their power to enact paid sick day ordinances, and nine of these laws were passed since 2012 (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee).
“I don't want everybody to vote”
Wisconsin’s ties with ALEC go back for decades. One of ALEC’s founders was rightwing political apparatchik Paul Weyrich, a Racine, Wisconsin native who famously said: “I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people – they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
This spirit is reflected in ALEC’s push for “voter ID,” which purports to address the statistically non-existent (but greatly hyped) issue of voter fraud, and which has the very real effect of making it harder for students, people of color, and the elderly to cast ballots. Walker has boasted that he was the “author of the first bill to require voters to show photo ID at the polls” as a legislator, and in 2011, with recall elections looming, ALEC State Chair Rep. Robin Vos halted work on the biannual budget to rush an ALEC-inspired voter ID law through the legislature.
Over 300,000 people in Wisconsin – primarily people of color and students -- lack the specific kinds of identification now required to vote under the new Wisconsin law, according to testimony from University of Wisconsin professor Kenneth Mayer.
State and federal judges initially blocked the law’s implementation, but after years of legal challenges, Wisconsin’s ALEC-inspired voter restriction will take effect this year.
Walker has repeatedly boasted about the voter ID measure on the presidential campaign trail, and continues to stoke discredited fears of voter fraud. On June 2, for example, his campaign sent out a fundraising email titled "Voter Fraud ALERT," declaring that "Scott Walker has been a champion of voter ID laws" but a recent lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's voter suppression measures "could open up the 2016 elections for massive voter fraud."
Walker the First ALEC President?
Scott Walker learned early that if he continued to move the ALEC ideological and corporate agenda, he would attract and be rewarded by the same deep-pocketed ideological and corporate donors that fund ALEC. The Kochs, for example, have been among Walker's biggest backers as well as major funders of ALEC, spending at least $11.6 million supporting Walker's gubernatorial campaigns since 2010.
And the Kochs' sprawling political network might help propel Walker to the presidency.
ALEC has previously had its boosters in the White House. A turning point for the group, which was formed in 1973, came when it was embraced by President Ronald Reagan, who promoted ALEC's efforts to privatize government and advance corporate interests. Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, addressed ALEC conferences, as did his son, President George W. Bush. (Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did not address ALEC's conferences or tout the organization.)
Yet Walker, if elected, would be the first ALEC member and diehard champion of its extreme policies to sit in the Oval Office.