State Senate Closes Session with Anti-Freedom Legislation

In the waning days of this legislative session, the Wisconsin State Senate under GOP leadership is poised to pass some of the most anti-freedom legislation this state has seen in a generation.

One of the fundamental freedoms that Wisconsin has always expanded for its citizens is the vote. The first State Constitution proposed in 1846 would have granted the right to vote for immigrants, women and African Americans. That original Constitution failed to pass due to Territorial laws giving only property-owning white males the right to vote on the founding document. The adopted Constitution in 1848 provided the foundation of voting freedom, and Wisconsin has continued to expand voting freedom throughout history:

  1. 1849 Wisconsin Referendum provided African American men the right to vote.
  2. 1865-1866 Ezekiel Gillespie case at State Supreme Court validates African American vote.
  3. 1869 Wisconsin is a leader in passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing African American the right to vote nationwide.
  4. 1919 Wisconsin leads the nation in passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote.
  5. 1935 Wisconsin leads the nation in expanding voting freedom to “Every citizen” over the age of 21 and a state resident for one year. At this time, most other states still had literacy, language, or property requirements.
  6. Contemporary voting freedom acts have Wisconsin as a national leader in voting registration and participation, fundamental to our democracy. 

The legislation before the State Senate today is historic, in that it represents the first time in over a generation that our duly elected legislators may act to impinge upon the freedom of thousands of Wisconsinites to register and vote. Not since the 1908 American Indian Voting Restrictions, which prohibited American Indians in Wisconsin from voting if they lived on a reservation, has a sitting legislature taken action that would literally impinge upon people’s fundamental freedom to register to vote or cast a ballot.

This legislature has established itself as a fundamentally anti-freedom body. Since 2011, this legislature has acted to impinge upon the freedom of citizens to organize for the purposes of negotiating for fair wages, earned benefits, and just working conditions. It has impinged upon the freedom of thousands of children to receive a quality public education through funding cuts. It has even impinged upon (and continues to impinge upon) the freedom of local governments to provide necessary resources and services to their constituents.

Making matters worse are current proposals which would open the flow of campaign cash even further. It is the freedom to vote and participate in democracy that is at the foundation of our nation. Our lawmakers take an oath to uphold this principle, and through their continual pursuit of big money interests and lobbyists, our elected lawmakers are choosing to betray that trust. In essence, they are cheating on us – engaging in a salacious affair with these big money and lobbying interests, kicking the majority of Wisconsinites they represent to the curb.

The legacy of this Legislative Session will be written years from now. If the GOP-controlled Senate passes these bills as conventional wisdom suggests, it will go down in history as an anti-freedom legislature -impinging upon fundamental freedoms which have been established for generations.

(See link here for Wisconsin Election History documentation)

Forward Institute Statement on Budget Passage

The Forward Institute Board of Directors issued this statement regarding legislative passage of the budget:

The Wisconsin Legislature has passed a budget which will do long-term damage to education in Wisconsin. In expanding the private voucher program statewide, failing to keep up with inflation in funding public schools, failing to address student poverty issues, and unfairly rewarding select schools and students, Wisconsin Legislators are basing bad policy solely on multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and lobbying efforts, not the evidence for what works in schools.  The most important function of state government is the support of public education (Brown v. Board of Education, majority opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren, 1954); the majority party in Wisconsin has passed a budget which is a fundamental governing failure. Every citizen in Wisconsin will be negatively affected by this budget. 

1. Statewide expansion of private voucher schools increases spending by hundreds of millions of dollars on a program which has failed in its fundamental purpose:  provide a better educational alternative for children of poverty. After twenty-plus years of the Milwaukee experiment, voucher schools have shown no positive benefit to student outcome and have almost no accountability to the taxpayers.

2.  Voucher school expansion increases the financial burden on local public schools, especially those in areas of high poverty, as state funding fails to keep up with inflation. Students in rural and urban areas of poverty continue to be denied equal access to educational opportunity compared to their more fortunate peers.  This is fundamentally in violation of Article X(2) Section 3 of the State Constitution and Wisconsin state statute 121.01.

3. Property taxes will continue to increase. Funding for the private voucher program is taken from the education budget first, with public school funding coming out of the remaining revenues.  As state revenue for public education continues to diminish relative to costs and inflation, property taxpayers will shoulder the burden for the local funding gap in public education. This is also in violation of state statute 121.01 on public school financing.

4. The budget provisions allow existing voucher schools to accept students statewide, without the new students counting toward the enrollment cap. This statewide expansion is contrary to the original, bi-partisan voucher experiment as established during Tommy Thompson’s tenure as Governor.

5. The budget limits accountability for educational outcomes by explicitly forbidding the Department of Public Instruction from reporting voucher school and student data without the consent of individual schools, data that public schools are required to provide. This intentionally prevents comparative analyses of the effectiveness of voucher school programs.

Forward Institute applauds lawmakers’ agreement with our policy recommendation to abandon the use of School Report Cards to make critical school financing decisions. The remainder of the education budget is a disaster, ignoring critical evidence presented in the months preceding debate. Legislators who advocated for passage of the education budget have demonstrated they are not interested in creating evidence-based policy.  Wisconsin’s heritage of forward thinking public education is threatened by policies driven by outside   lobby groups that want to compete for public funds, instead of focusing those funds on improving our troubled schools. The Forward Institute will continue to advocate for effective, evidence-based public policy in Wisconsin through independent research and communication efforts, and engagement across partisan lines.

Forward Institute Board of Directors

(A pdf file is available here: Forward Institute Budget Passage Statement 2013)

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Report – Education Budget Places Heavier Education Funding Burden on Property Taxpayers

Based on the reported provisions of the education budget and state fiscal data, Forward Institute analysis shows that local property taxpayers will shoulder an increasing share of public education funding. This is potentially a violation of Wisconsin State Statutes regarding school finance.

Wisconsin Statute 121.01 regarding school finance, general aid:

“It is declared to be the policy of this state that education is a state function and that some relief should be afforded from the local general property tax as a source of public school revenue where such tax is excessive, and that other sources of revenue should contribute a larger percentage of the total funds needed.”

Compiling data from the Department of Public Instruction and Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows that for the first time since the adoption of Wisconsin Statute 121.01, local property taxes will fund a greater portion of the public education budget than state aid.


Hastily written, behind-the-scenes political deals never result in good public policy. This budget proposal is no different. Not only does it potentially violate state education funding statute 121.01 and place a greater burden on local property taxpayers, but it has opened the door for Governor Scott Walker to use the line item veto to simply eliminate the student enrollment limit on the voucher program. The result, as is clear from our analysis, would continue Wisconsin down a fiscally irresponsible path for public education.

The full report can be viewed at Education Budget Report June 6, 2013.

Forward Institute Chair Testimony against Election Omnibus Bill

The following is the testimony of Scott Wittkopf, Chair, Forward Institute, registering against AB225: 

Madame Chair and Members,

Upon review of AB225, the full scope and nature of this egregious bill can be found in the provisions which seek to revise the current Recall Statutes. The recall is provided for in the State Constitution under Article XIII, Section 12. It is abundantly clear that in providing citizens with the recall mechanism, the Constitution continued to affirm the principle of popular sovereignty in Wisconsin Government. In even considering AB225, this legislative body is systematically dismantling one of the foundational principles of Wisconsin government – that “the will of the people is the law of the land.”

The proposed change to the Recall Statutes in AB225 may be intended to apply only to local and municipal elected officials, but make no doubt, it flies in the face of the very letter of the Constitution. Article XIII, Section 12(7) states:

“This section shall be self−executing and mandatory. Laws may be enacted to facilitate its operation but no law shall be enacted to hamper, restrict or impair the right of recall.” 

AB225 does exactly that, and worse yet, attempts to hide behind the creation of two distinct classes of recall – one with a higher standard than the other. By any reasonable evaluation, AB225 hampers, restricts and impairs the Constitutional right of the recall. It is an erosion of the principle of popular sovereignty in Wisconsin Government – making it more difficult for citizens to exercise their constitutional right to recall an official for any reason related to their duties. As I stated previously, this is the nature of the entire bill – the destruction of popular sovereignty in Wisconsin.

That can be the only explanation for a bill which would allow private corporations to increase their unreported, unregulated, and unlimited “independent” political campaign influence; while at the same time prohibiting a School District, which has full accountability to the citizens, from spending a single dime of those very same taxpayers’ funds to inform them about important funding referendum. This is absurd and a travesty. This provision in AB225 will serve only to increase the already outsized influence of private, unaccountable corporations, and continue to diminish the voice of citizens in local elections.

AB225 also continues to increase the influence of lobbyists in Wisconsin elections, through extending the contribution time limit. We already have lobbyists writing our laws on behalf of their corporate sponsors. These same lobbyists will now have increased power to influence elections. Again I reiterate, decimating the principle of popular sovereignty.

You will hear a great deal of testimony today, and most of it will be against AB225 relevant to the rights of citizens to express their political will through the vote. This is compelling testimony. I also ask you to consider legacy in the context of my remarks.

This committee is now taking up a bill, just as your colleagues in Joint Finance are, which will create the legacy that this legislative body will leave behind.  Passage of AB225 will ensure that legacy will be one of destruction. It is not overstating that AB225, if passed, will result in the destruction of popular sovereignty as Wisconsin has known for over a century. Your legacy will be that private corporations, through highly partisan political committees, will have greater control and influence in the Wisconsin political and governing process. Wisconsin citizens’ voices will be diminished even further in their own government.

The principle of popular sovereignty as intended in the State Constitution will be lost, as it was in the late 19th Century. History will judge your actions as harshly as it did the legislators of the “Robber Baron” era. We may look to history for the consequences of that era, and I hope my testimony today gives you pause as you consider the legacy you will leave should you pass this bill. The Constitutional right of the recall which AB225 intends to impair represents the principle and precedent of popular sovereignty in Wisconsin government. AB225 is an assault on that principle. Today, this committee has a clear choice.

The passage of AB225 means that you choose the destruction of popular sovereignty, in favor of increased private, corporate power and influence over Wisconsin government and, therefore, its people. I ask you today to choose rejection of AB225, respecting the legacy of those who came before you in this legislative body, and the generations of citizens who have exercised their right of popular sovereignty so that we all may do the same.

Respectfully submitted,

Scott Wittkopf, Chair

Forward Institute, Inc.

Letter to Joint Finance Committee Concerning Education Budget

Forward Institute Chair Scott Wittkopf submitted the following letter to the Joint Finance Committee today, Tuesday, May 28 (JFC Letter 2013):

Dear Senator Darling, Representative Nygren, and Members of the Joint Finance Committee,

The Forward Institute’s recent study; “Wisconsin Budget Policy and Poverty in Education” has received bi-partisan support and addresses critical issues regarding education funding, state budget, and student outcomes. This letter is to urge you to adopt education funding policy based on the best evidence available, setting ideology aside. Our report addresses the following educational policy issues relevant to the current DPI budget:

The private school voucher expansion proposal should be removed from the budget and introduced as separate policy legislation. It is inappropriate to continue pushing voucher expansion as part of a public education budget proposal. Our study clearly demonstrates that after more than twenty years, the Milwaukee private school voucher experiment can show no measurable educational outcome benefit to students when compared to Milwaukee Public Schools. Studies conducted by the pro-voucher School Choice Demonstration Project reach similar conclusions. Private voucher schools in Milwaukee are underperforming the Milwaukee public schools they are supposed to be a better alternative for, and are actually more costly per pupil to the state for worse results in student proficiency. This important debate must take into account all relevant facts and statewide impact of expanding such an expensive subsidy, which will not happen under cover of the biennial budget.

The Joint Finance Committee should begin to implement Dr. Tony Evers’ “Fair Funding Formula” as the first step to addressing the harsh inequities in Wisconsin’s existing education funding system. In the face of increasing economic stress and growing student poverty in public school districts statewide, we submit that it is not appropriate for the state to continue subsidizing unaccountable private religious education that produces questionable results. As our report clearly shows, the best use of the taxpayer education dollar is the public schools. Further, the impact of poverty on education in Wisconsin is not being addressed by current policy. In fact, we can predict with certainty that under the status quo the student effects of poverty will get worse in the coming decade.

The critical issues surrounding the growing dichotomy in Wisconsin education between children of poverty, and those of non-poverty must be addressed by the Legislature. There is a direct correlation between student/school outcome and rate of poverty not being addressed by the Legislature. The state of Wisconsin is failing our students, public schools are not failing. The current budget proposals will only make the situation worse. Further, as our report demonstrates, the current funding and delivery system in Wisconsin may no longer be Constitutional.

It is time to begin addressing these critical education issues in Wisconsin. Two immediate steps the Joint Finance Committee ought to take are removing the voucher program expansion proposal from the budget, and begin adopting Dr. Evers’ Fair Funding Formula. We urge you to make these education policy decisions based on evidence, not ideology.


Scott Wittkopf, Chair

Forward Institute

A New Way of Messaging

The Forward Institute is going to change the way public policy messaging and strategy in Wisconsin is developed. The Wisconsin Retirement System is a current issue we are developing research and messaging around. The facts come first. Unlike some “think tanks,” we don’t create the message and cherry pick the facts to suit our informational campaigns. We don’t consider the media to be a source, unlike some other “think tanks,” unless it is a noted expert that can be sourced back to original material.

Forward Institute draws on factual information and data to build a messaging framework that people will understand and relate to. Background research and sources can be found on the “Research” page. These are issues that directly affect everyone in “Our Wisconsin.” For example, the promise of security after a lifetime of service.

Wisconsin’s public employers help workers save for retirement by deferring part of their compensation to a retirement fund. When you choose a career in the public sector, you understand that your wages will remain modest. But you get a promise in return—that the money taken out of your paycheck will be there when you retire. You deserve the income you were promised to meet your needs?  In our Wisconsin, we don’t break our promises. We honor dedication, honesty and fairness.

Our Wisconsin Pension system is sound, and responsibly managed. Wisconsin’s pension fund is uniquely designed for stability. The risks and rewards of fund investments are shared between employees, retirees and taxpayers, with taxpayers bearing only 25% of the risk.  For the past four years, retired public employees have gotten less and employees now pay more.  The Walker administration’s own study concluded that changing the system could raise costs for everyone.  We don’t need higher brokerage fees and more fund administrators. Our state retirement system is working—for everyone.

Our Wisconsin Pension system should be available to all – to strengthen the system, lower the risk, and continue to strengthen investment in Wisconsin. Unlike private investment companies, our pension fund commits to investing in Wisconsin companies, ranging from start-ups to those employing 20 or more—to the tune of $12 billion in 2010.  Jobs are also created by retiree spending. Each dollar invested by taxpayers provides $6.22 in economic activity—a ripple effect that supported more than 35,000 jobs in 2010—the difference between an unemployment rate of 8.5% and 9.6%.  Why ship our money to Wall Street brokers?  Our communities suffer when we spend less. In our Wisconsin, what’s earned in Wisconsin, stays in Wisconsin.

Sources can be found on our Research page. Comments are welcome!