Republican front group relies on reporters' help in effort to keep corporate taxes absurdly low.
The highly partisan “non-partisan” Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance
State government reporters throughout Wisconsin frequently cite the work and opinions of the people who run the Wisconsin Taxpayer’s Alliance, especially during budget time. And when they identify the organization, journalists almost always call it the “non-partisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.”
This is especially true for Wisconsin Public Television. If there is a question about tax proposals, the Tax Alliance is called upon to “explain” it to the unwashed.
The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance is, in reality, a Republican (read big business) front organization, with a board made up of some of Wisconsin’s biggest Republican donors and a strategy that might have been written by Charles Sykes and the Bradley Foundation in the boardrooms of the corporations that fare so well under Wisconsin’s unfair taxation system.
Wisconsin’s business elites are entitled to set up any organization they choose and call it “public-interest” or “non-partisan.” They are not even legally prevented from having such an outfit present one-sided data to support the cause of big business. The mystery is how and why the Capitol press corps buys into the scam.
A case in point is the top story in the July 3 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The banner headline, above the fold, read “High taxes rooted in state history.” The subhead said, “Study says expectations for schools, roads, public services lead to 4th-ranked tax burden in U.S.”
In the article’s 17th paragraph—it goes on for a total of 36—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel state government reporter Steve Walters says the “study” is “based on research done by the non-partisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance for the Thiensville-based Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which studies public policy issues affecting the state.”
Nowhere is the admission that the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) is the polling arm of the right-wing Bradley Foundation, inventors of Milwaukee’s private school voucher program. Vouchers are a favorite cause among conservative activists all over the United States, including the publishers of the Journal Sentinel. WPRI publishes a quarterly magazine edited by right-wing Milwaukee radio host and Bradley “fellow” Charles Sykes, whose daytime employer, WTMJ, is in turn owned by same company that owns the Journal Sentinel.
Walters leads readers to believe the Taxpayers Alliance and WPRI are disinterested research organizations. He also fails to offer any countervailing arguments or context to the unrestrained assumption that Wisconsin’s taxes are among the highest in the nation.
The truth is that only personal taxes in Wisconsin are high. When corporate taxes are put into the mix Wisconsin’s tax collections rank somewhere in the middle, because the taxes Wisconsin corporations pay are among the lowest in the nation.
A study by the Bank of Boston in the mid-1990s found that Wisconsin’s corporate taxes were the second lowest in the nation, higher only than Mississippi’s. More recent studies have put Wisconsin fourth lowest in corporate taxes, sharing the bottom of the barrel with such economic powerhouses as Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and South Dakota.
Those states keep taxes on corporations low by simply providing lousy public services to their citizens. Wisconsin keeps big business happy by sticking it to middle-income wage earners and homeowners.
The good people at the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance want to keep it that way, but they are not content to simply sit back and feed the media bogus numbers and faulty economic theories. Rather, their “research” should be seen as just one leg in a complex political strategy that is held together by big campaign money.
Taxpayers Alliance chairman of the board Mark A. Cullen, president of the J.P. Cullen and Sons, is a deep-pocketed Republican campaign donor. Cullen and the executives in his company have made more than 300 campaign contributions in the 12 years Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has been tracking political donors.
Vice Chairman Dennis Kuester, president of M&I in Milwaukee has made more than 150 campaign contributions. Of the Taxpayers Alliance’s 13 board members, not a single one has failed to donate to a Republican candidate in the last decade.
One board member is Mark Bugher, Tommy Thompson’s former administration secretary. Another is longtime Thompson crony, attorney San Orr. The officers and the board made strategic donations to Democrats here and there, but almost all of the money goes to the GOP.
Some give more than others. Former Firstar Bank chairman Roger Fitzsimonds and his wife have 154 entries in the Democracy Campaign database. Firstar is one of the 11 largest Wisconsin banks--along with Kuester's M&I--that pay no Wisconsin taxes.
It is not hard to convince people in Wisconsin that our taxes are too high when most people’s taxes are, indeed, too high. When there is such an imbalance between corporate and personal taxes the obvious solution is to balance the equation by lowering one tax and raising the other. The Taxpayers Alliance’s approach to this commonsense threat is to promote the idea that the state simply spends more than other states and needs to cut spending, creating an environment where increasing any tax—even if it is done in order to lower another tax—is out of the political question.
Even the Taxpayers Alliance knows enough about the tax system to understand that significant state budget cuts are structurally impossible. Their real agenda is to maintain the status quo of absurdly low corporate taxes by creating an environment in which there will not be a tax revolt against corporations for failing to pay their fair share. In other words, their work is designed to keep personal taxes high.
Succeeding with such a bold shell game is a major undertaking, and the Republican elected officials the Taxpayers Alliance supports are, apparently, not articulate enough to carry out the task on their own. They need the media’s help. And they are getting it.
August 17, 2003
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Ed Garvey is editor and publisher of FightingBob.com.