CAP TIMES Op-ed discuses ALEC's nefarious influence on state governments over 30 years

June 14, 2011
Randall Schumann

Paralleling the role of the wizard in the “Wizard of Oz,” there is a little-known but powerful, big-business/corporate interest, national organization that has been at work behind the scenes of state government legislative proposals for the last several decades.

It’s an organization that not only develops legislative proposals benefiting big business, but also has been successful in getting them introduced and pushed through the legislatures in every state, including Wisconsin.

The American Legislative Exchange Council was founded in the early 1970s and, like the wizard, operates “behind the curtain” and can boast of both drafting and helping pass hundreds of state laws. Its highest priorities are tax cuts for corporations, loosened environmental regulations, restrictions on union collective bargaining, and privatizing state-owned assets.

Some 300 of America’s biggest corporations are ALEC’s “sponsors” and more than a third of all state lawmakers in the country (totaling 2,400 legislators, most of whom are Republican) are “members.” If an ALEC-member legislator takes an ALEC proposal back to his or her home state and introduces it, the legislator can expect to receive in exchange generous campaign contributions from the big corporate sponsors or their political action committees.

ALEC’s influence on legislation in Wisconsin goes back decades. A recent article quotes from a speech made by former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson at a 2010 ALEC luncheon where he bragged that when he was a legislator and ALEC member, he took ALEC’s proposals, “disguised” them a little — and then introduced them as “his own ideas.”

Corporate taxation in Wisconsin is a perfect illustration of the effectiveness ALEC has enjoyed here. In the 1960s, when Gaylord Nelson was governor, Wisconsin businesses provided 25 percent of the state’s total revenue. Now that figure is about 5 percent, a fifth of what it was 50 years ago, thanks to multiple lowerings of corporate tax rates and innumerable tax breaks for large corporations. Additionally, it is estimated that two-thirds of large Wisconsin corporations (not the small corporations that are the primary engines of job creation) pay no Wisconsin tax at all!

This trend has been a major contributing factor to Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion budget deficit.

But, not surprisingly, Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s Republican legislators didn’t address that in their current state budget, instead actually giving some corporations more tax breaks. Worse, one GOP lawmaker is planning to introduce, with the governor’s blessing, legislation that would completely eliminate corporate taxes in the state.

In addition to the focus on expanding tax benefits for big business, other major legislative proposals that have been put into the legislative hopper since the Walker administration took over in January are straight from the top of ALEC’s wish list. The so-called budget repair bill’s provisions to abolish collective bargaining and to privatize state power generation facilities are perfect examples. So is the loosening of pollution regulations.

It could be said that this all demands a “Back to the Future” moment for Wisconsin. More than 100 years ago, Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette, father of the Progressive movement, gave a 4th of July speech in Mineral Point telling Wisconsinites how he saw unrestrained corporate power as the great threat to representative government:

“So multifarious have become corporate affairs, so many concessions and privileges have been accorded them by legislation — and so many more are sought by further legislation — that their specially retained representatives are either elected to office, directly in their interests, or maintained in a perpetual lobby to serve them.”

Fighting Bob then went on to say: “Do not look to such lawmakers to restrain corporations within proper limits. Do not look to such lawmakers to equalize the burden of taxation.”

La Follette’s words from over 100 years ago are just as true today as they were then.

What is necessary right now is to do what was done in the “Wizard of Oz” movie: Pull back the curtain and expose for all citizens to see that ALEC is the “wizard” behind the major legislative proposals of Walker and the current crop of Wisconsin Republican legislators. Wisconsin voters need to see that their state is not just “open for business” as Walker repeatedly claims, but rather that Wisconsin has been “bought by big business.”

Randall Schumann is a lifelong Madison resident who recently retired as an attorney with the state of Wisconsin Division of Securities Regulation.