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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

In Whose Interest?

Protesters shadow WMC’s meetings and members

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WMC is a business association working to advance policies that are in the public interest of our state and nation,” reads a statement on the Web site of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business lobbying group.


But more people are realizing that what WMC calls the “public interest” is anything but. Take a handful of concerned citizens who dutifully picketed the Milwaukee headquarters of M&I Corp. last Friday. In the cold weather, the protesters tried to call attention to WMC’s regional meeting being held inside, where WMC was arguing that the state’s Supreme Court was taking an “activist direction.”

Speakers included Marquette Professor Rick Esenberg, who authored a study that WMC is circulating as part of its efforts to raise money for this spring’s state Supreme Court election. Titled “A Court Unbound? The Recent Jurisprudence of the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” the conservative Federalist Society-sponsored report attacks recent decisions that Esenberg claims are too “activist” for Wisconsin’s good.

“This is a critical juncture,” his paper concludes. “The court is now more or less evenly divided between two groups of justices who have dramatically different notions of the role of the judiciary. It is the purpose of this white paper to facilitate a discussion about this important trend and to foster a dialogue about the proper role of the courts in our state.”

But the real goal of the report and regional meetings, critics say, is to raise money for attack ads targeting state Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, who is up for re-election in April. Conservatives say that Butler is part of the “activist” majority who has ruled against the interests of business in areas of liability and medical malpractice cases.

Butler faces Burnett County Judge Michael Gableman in the general election, and campaign watchers have pre- dicted that WMC will spend up to $4 million to attack Butler. Gableman, like state Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler, who greatly benefited from the $2.4 million WMC spent on her 2006 race for the state’s highest court, says he will not “legislate from the bench.”

But Eric Liljequist, a retired teacher from Madison who protested WMC last Friday, isn’t buying it. “We think that this large amount of money—indeed any amount of outside money going into issue ads to influence the state Supreme Court race—is a bad idea,” Liljequist said. “The state Supreme Court is supposed to be a nonpartisan race. And by making this into a partisan fight, it’s having a terribly corrosive influence on the way that the court thinks and functions and feels.”

He said that outside money was part of a pattern of WMC’s adverse influence on state politics. WMC’s legislative agenda includes opposing any tax or public investment—unless it benefits corporations. “We’ve had a bone to pick with WMC for quite a while because they’ve been rolling the drumbeat for decades now for lowering taxes on businesses in Wisconsin, and of course that has a huge effect,” Liljequist said. “The tax difference has to be picked up by the middle class. We’re paying more and more taxes and businesses are paying less and less.”

Liljequist said WMC’s political aims have also impacted him professionally. “Schools are getting less and less and less money because of the tax structure and the way that WMC has successfully lowered the amount of taxes that they pay that supports the state and our school system,” Liljequist argued.

A Dialogue with the Board of Directors
The picketers’ signs targeted not only WMC, but two area corporations: Sussex-based Quad/Graphics Inc., and Snap-on Inc. of Kenosha. Both companies have representatives on WMC’s board of directors—Quad/Graphics’ CEO Joel Quadracci and Jack D. Michaels, chairman of Snap-on’s board of directors. These corporations were singled out because neither has agreed to meet with former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. For about six months, Soglin has been talking with WMC’s board members in an effort to explain the impact of the lobbying group’s political agenda on the state’s business climate and taxpayers. Soglin has also been shadowing WMC’s regional meetings in recent weeks.

“I had a theory that a significant amount of WMC’s members really hadn’t thought out the implications of the organization’s public policy positions,” Soglin said. “I have found that to be true, having met with about a dozen of the board members.”

Soglin said that not all members of the WMC he’s spoken with understand the true effect on the state’s economy of the WMC-backed Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) or the WMC-opposed hospital tax, which would raise $400 million in the state and be matched by another $400 million from the federal government.

“In listening to them it’s very evident that quite a few of them get the link between public investment in infrastructure and public investment in human capacity and building a sound economy,” Soglin said. “There’s also some that don’t get it.”

Soglin said that other business groups—such as the Milwaukee 7, which is co-chaired by Northwestern Mutual Life President and CEO Ed Zore, or the New North in northern Wisconsin—have a more enlightened view of the public sector than the WMC. “In part you can see some of this discussion in Milwaukee, where Ed Zore is saying, ‘Hey gang, it’s not taxes that are the real issue, it’s workforce development,’” Soglin said.

In addition to trying to bridge the divide between the state’s business establishment and its public resources, Soglin has been taking aim at WMC’s involvement in races for the state Supreme Court. Soglin is encouraging WMC to disclose who is contributing to its issue ads and wants its board of directors to take responsibility for them.

“These board members are the ones who make the decision to collect the money, to spend it, to approve the content of the ads,” Soglin said. Soglin agreed that WMC has the right to air its opinions—but unlike unions, which are funded by its members, the WMC doesn’t disclose the source of the funds for its issue ads.

“We don’t know where that $2 to $4 million comes from,” Soglin said. “We don’t know if it’s coming from Wal- Mart, we don’t know if it’s coming from the Manitowoc Co., we don’t know if it’s coming from the U.S.

Chamber of Commerce, who is redirecting money that is coming from other sources. “And we’ve got a right to tell them we don’t like it,” he added. “And we have a right to tell the public who’s responsible for these ads. Who made the decision to air them? It’s not WMC.

It’s the 40-plus companies that comprise the board of directors.” WMC did not respond to a call seeking comment for this article.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.