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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Who’s Hosting the Tea Party?

Big Oil funds tax rallies and global warming deniers

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It’s tax time again, which means that anti-tax protesters will gather at the state Capitol and denounce government spending.

But tax season 2010 will have one new element: the appearance of the Tea Party Express II, a bus-load of anti-government protesters crisscrossing the country to spread their message.

The Tea Party Express famously began its tour in Searchlight, Nev., where FOX News pundit Sarah Palin egged on the crowd in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hometown.

As we go to press, the Tea Party Express is planning a stop at State Fair Park on Wednesday, April 7, sponsored by Our Country Deserves Better Political Action Committee (PAC) and the corporate-financed Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP). The bus will also visit rallies in Madison, Eau Claire and Green Bay before heading toward Washington, D.C., on April 15. The state chapter of AFP will hold a tax day tea party on the Capitol steps, as usual, to denounce government spending.

What’s It All About?

While the national media have highlighted Sarah Palin’s star turn at Tea Party rallies and corporate links to the events, Mark Block, the director of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said the Tea Party movement is a leader-less grassroots group made up of average citizens who want to get involved in politics.

“The tea party movement is an outgrowth of the government moving too fast, too quick, both at the state and national levels,” Block told the Shepherd.

But AFP-Wisconsin was launched in 2007, long before anyone had heard of massive bank bailouts or “ObamaCare” or wacky conspiracy theories about a foreign-born socialist president.

Back then, AFP-Wisconsin was advocating for a taxpayers’ bill of rights, which would have severely limited the state’s ability to raise taxes to pay for core services such as public education and law enforcement, as well as inevitable budgetary increases—for energy or health care costs, for example.

Since President Obama’s election, AFP-Wisconsin has held a number of anti-tax rallies, where politicians such as Congressman Paul Ryan, gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, multimillionaire U.S. Senate candidate Terrence Wall and conservative radio talkers show up to denounce government spending (usually while standing on publicly owned land).

But Block said the number of tea party attendees and members proves that the movement is grassroots, “not Astroturf,” or the creation of corporate PR experts and lobbyists who are manipulating voters to help them stymie reform.

“The more citizens that get involved in the political process, the better,” Block said.

Deep Pockets and Denial

But is AFP truly a grassroots phenomenon?

While many local rally-goers will no doubt be sincerely concerned about government spending and taxes, both of the event’s organizers are well-funded national groups with impressive connections throughout the conservative movement.

Our Country Deserves Better has organized campaigns against health care reform and in support of new Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. The PAC spent $347,670 on ads supporting Brown’s recent candidacy.

But that’s chump change compared to what Americans for Prosperity has spent on its PR campaigns.

AFP is funded by the owners of the second largest privately held corporation in the country—the Wichita, Kan.-based Koch Industries Inc., an oil conglomerate with business interests throughout North America, including Wisconsin.

In addition to being an astute businessman, Koch Industries’ founder, Fred Koch, also held strong political beliefs. In fact, Fred was a founding member of the radically conservative John Birch Society in the 1950s. The group, although less prominent than in its 1960s heyday, is headquartered in Appleton, Wis., and remains a strong supporter of limited government and Christian principles.

Two of Fred’s four sons, Charles and David, have expanded their father’s business empire—for example, the company bought Georgia-Pacific Corp. for $13 billion in 2005, and the Lycra and Stainmaster brands from DuPont Corp. for $4.2 billion in 2004.

In 2008, the company’s annual sales totaled $100 billion.

Charles and David are each worth $16 billion—wealthier than the founders of Google ($15.3 billion each) and financier George Soros ($13 billion), but not as rich as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($17.5 billion) or Bill Gates ($50 billion), currently the richest man in America.

That’s why tea party critics like Scot Ross, executive director of the progressive watchdog group One Wisconsin Now, said AFP’s real aim is to make the rich richer and the middle class and low-income workers even worse off than they are now.

“Americans for Prosperity is a corporate-funded front group that is trying to extract as much of our public dollars as they can and then put it in the hands of the corporations that fund it,” Ross said. “They’re about reducing protections that keep our air fit to breathe and our water fit to drink and our food fit to eat.”

But AFP-Wisconsin’s Block says that the state chapter receives little financial support from the national organization—just administrative, legal and marketing help—while his salary and other expenses are paid for by locally raised funds.

“I have never once been told that we needed to take a position because of what the Koch family wanted,” Block said.

Climate Change Denial

Yet AFP’s advocacy and the Koch family’s business interests dovetail nicely. In fact, the Big Oil-backed AFP is behind much of the climate change-denying spin that permeates the media.

According to a just-released study by Greenpeace USA, the Koch brothers’ foundations have spent an astounding $24.8 million between 2005 and 2008 on global-warming-denying opposition groups, such as the Mercatus Center ($9.2 million), AFP ($5.2 million), the Heritage Foundation ($1.6 million) and the Cato Institute ($1 million). What’s more, between 2006 and 2009, Koch Industries, its employees and relatives spent $37.9 million on direct lobbying on oil and energy issues.

More visibly, AFP sponsored the $5 million Hot Air Tour to rally global warming skeptics in advance of a vote on environmental legislation in Congress. It also supported last year’s highly charged town hall meetings on health care reform, a frenzy whipped up by FreedomWorks, led by former right-wing Republican congressional leader Dick Armey, which grew out of the Koch-funded Citizens for a Sound Economy in 2003.

“The company’s tightknit network of lobbyists, former executives and organizations has created a forceful stream of misinformation that Koch-funded entities produce and disseminate,” the Greenpeace report states. “This campaign propaganda is then replicated, repackaged and echoed many times throughout the Koch-funded web of political front groups and think tanks.”

For example, Greenpeace reports that at least 20 Koch-funded entities were involved in hyping the “climate gate” story, in which the e-mails of a climate scientist at East Anglia University were hacked into and then exposed just before the climate summit in Copenhagen.

But despite the Koch-backed claims that the e-mails showed that global warming was a myth spun by biased researchers, the professor in question was cleared last week by a British House of Commons committee investigating the matter.

“We have found no reason in this unfortunate episode to challenge the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and is induced by human activity,” the report on the inquiry concluded.

Lobbying Against the Clean Energy Jobs Bill

Closer to home, AFP, Koch Companies Public Sector and the Wisconsin Paper Council (the Koch-owned Georgia-Pacific is a member) are lobbying against the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act, which aims to reduce Wisconsin’s dependence on fossil fuels, such as oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, while boosting Wisconsin-generated sources of renewable energy.

Turns out that Koch Industries owns Flint Hills Resources’ Pine Bend Refinery, south of the Twin Cities, which refines oil from Canada’s tar sands, as well as a pipeline throughout Wisconsin. According to a series of excellent La Crosse Tribune articles published in March, Pine Bend produces up to 40% of Wisconsin’s transportation fuel, mostly for the western part of the state.

But that Canadian oil may not meet the low-carbon fuel standards included in the proposed clean-energy legislation.

So conservative legislators (mostly Republican, but also Sen. Jeff Plale, a Democrat from South Milwaukee, who opposes the bill’s low-carbon standard) have been fighting for Canadian oil instead of advocating for Wisconsin-based renewable energy sources.

For example, in February, state Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) warned in a press release that the “Global warming bill could shut off a major source of Wisconsin’s energy” and that “serious thought [should] be given to legislation that could do harm to the benefits Wisconsin receives from Canadian energy.”

Likewise, the Koch-owned Georgia-Pacific, which has facilities scattered throughout northern Wisconsin, is a member of the Wisconsin Paper Council, which also opposes the bill.

AFP’s Block—who, according to the state Government Accountability Board Web site, has registered as a lobbyist on the bill—said that the group focuses on the economic issues connected to global warming.

“We have weighed in on the governor’s original Global Warming Task Force recommendations and had urged our activists to let their legislators know that we thought it was bad economic policy in Wisconsin,” Block said.

AFP also paid for recent robocalls urging opposition to the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line.

“Economically, we don’t think the KRM is justifiable, the dollars that they want to spend on it to subsidize it,” Block said.

While Block argues that AFP is a true grassroots organization, One Wisconsin Now’s Scot Ross sees AFP as doing the bidding of its corporate creators.

“It’s no coincidence that profits from giant corporations are being pumped into front groups like AFP to further those corporate interests,” Ross said.


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