In early June, a bill was introduced by Republican legislators to bring bail bondsman back to Wisconsin – something the state had legally eliminated back in 1979. It seemed like a solution in search of a problem. There had been no complaints that the system in place for 32 years had any particular flaws. No […]

In early June, a bill was introduced by Republican legislators to bring bail bondsman back to Wisconsin – something the state had legally eliminated back in 1979. It seemed like a solution in search of a problem. There had been no complaints that the system in place for 32 years had any particular flaws. No district attorneys seemed to be clamoring for the change. In fact, Milwaukee’s current District Attorney John Chisholm said the change would have a negative effect on public safety, and former DA E. Michael McCann said a bail bondsman system typically brings corruption with it.

The bill, it turned out, was something recommended by the American Legislative Exchange Council; ALEC had created a model bill on which the Wisconsin one was based. Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a co-chair of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee who defended the bill, has attended ALEC conferences in the past. So perhaps that’s where an idea that seemed to come from nowhere actually originated.

The most detailed account of ALEC’s influence on Wisconsin I’ve seen was done by Mary Bottari, a staff member of the liberal Center for Media and Democracy.  Documents from ALEC were apparently leaked by a disgruntled member of the group, and the many model bills it creates were studied by several Madison-based policy analysts, as The Capital Times’ associate editor John Nichols (who is married to Bottari) explained in a recent column.  Nichols has also written about it for The Nation magazine.

In essence, Bottari and Nichols portray ALEC as a group that has heavy corporate funding and some 2,000 members who are state legislators (mostly Republicans) that it connects to private sector representatives with a corporate-oriented agenda.

The reporting is fascinating, though it tends in the direction of suggesting that everything Republicans have stood for since the dawn of time has come from ALEC. Thus the analysis suggests Walker’s key bill to drastically restrict public worker collective bargaining rights came from ALEC, but Bottari admits “there is no ALEC bill that mirrors Walker’s proposal.”

Bottari wants us to believe the voter ID bill came from ALEC, but the model ALEC bill was written in 2009 and at least in this state, Republicans have been introducing voter ID bills since at least 2001. ALEC may have pushed for this concept in prior years, but no evidence of this is presented.

Bottari also suggests former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson “was the enthusiastic frontman for a slew of ALEC ideas and legislation — most famously ‘Welfare to Work’ and ‘School Choice.’” As someone who covered that era as a reporter, this strikes me as revisionist history of the most simplified kind.

Thompson’s idea for welfare reform actually came from a Democratic-dominated task force that made recommendations to Democratic Gov. Tony Earl (1982-1986), who rejected the proposals as “welfare bashing.” Thompson defeated Earl, took up the committee’s recommendations and ran with them.

His idea for school choice was also bipartisan. Democratic representative Annette Polly Williams was the key proponent, and Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist was another.

Here’s how Norquist recalls it (in an emailed response to my question):  “I came to support school choice toward the end of my time in the State Senate mostly because I felt families were leaving Milwaukee to avoid public schools that they perceived as inferior. Polly supported Choice because her daughter was assigned to Pulaski- far from her home near Lincoln Park. I’m sure ALEC was for Choice, but I don’t think they were a factor. The Bradley Foundation was a big factor and paid for Polly to travel around the U.S.”

Conservative economist Milton Friedman was a key proponent of vouchers and had an influence on ALEC, Norquist and many others. Norquist says he went to an ALEC meeting just once. “I attended an ALEC meeting in Chicago in 2007 three years after leaving office,” he recalls. “I spoke about school choice. ALEC then opened the meeting to questions. Legislators and legislative staff could ask a question, but only after a private sector ALEC member asked a question. They are weird and corrupt and if Milton is looking down from the after life I don’t think he would admire ALEC.”

To suggest that all Republican ideas come from ALEC seems similar to the oft-repeated Republican quip that “the Democratic Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of WEAC” (the state teacher’s union).  But if Bottari exaggerates ALEC’s impact, she is quite convincing that a number of bills introduced by Republicans came from the group, including laws on tort reform (passed within a few weeks of Walker taking office), telecommunications deregulation, a tax break for tobacco companies (on moist tobacco products, an issue I’m guessing few voters have had sleepless nights worrying about), the bail bondsman bill, and a proposed constitutional amendment that requires all gas taxes and auto registration fees to be used for road building and maintenance. (Though Walker’s  spokesperson Cullen Werwie has denied ALEC’s influence on any of these bills).

But whatever ALEC’s impact, when it comes to Walker’s key anti-union bill, I wouldn’t overlook the impact of his experience dealing with county labor unions during his eight years as Milwaukee County Executive. Or the influence of his labor expert Greg Gracz. The idea that Walker and company are simply mindless corporate puppets may be an effective way to stoke the rage of liberals, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

Mike Grebe’s Impact on Walker

The other Democratic theory going around before the blitzkrieg of information on ALEC was that longtime Republican Michael Grebe, president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, was the guy who really came up with Walker’s agenda. In an attempt to test that theory, Senior Editor Kurt Chandler called a number of Republican insiders (and some Democrats), and came away with a consensus that (1) Grebe, though he was the transition director for Walker, was anything but an insider in the governor’s administration; (2) Walker has no key advisors and tends to keep his own counsel.  An interesting sidelight was that this seems to be an entirely new Republican regime, with little connection to the old members of Tommy Thompson’s rather extensive team.

Grebe’s key influence, it would appear, is that the Bradley Foundation funds ALEC – to the tune of $50,000 in 2009. That’s relatively small change for Bradley, which has for more than 25 years been the preeminent funder of conservative policy making and think tanks in the country. But it’s quite likely the foundation has been funding ALEC since the mid 1980s, when Grebe’s predecessor Michael Joyce created the foundation’s strategic framework. It’s hard to think of a conservative think tank or policy-making group it hasn’t funded – or that hasn’t had a significant impact on Republicans both in national and state office. In that sense, ALEC is a small part of a far more extensive network.

The Buzz

-Liberal blogger Bill Christofferson offers a droll take on the June job numbers announced by Walker.

-Associated Bank reported its fourth straight profitable quarter.  And from 2001-2008, it earned $2.6 billion in pre-tax profits and paid nothing – not one dollar – in state corporate taxes. Pressroom Buzz discusses the new research on corporate taxes – and the question of how the media will cover it. 

-And the Sports Nut penalizes the NFL for excessive celebration of an end to the player lockout.