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Bill Lueders argues that Gov. Evers “can do better on openness” in an October 6 OP-ED piece in the Wisconsin State Journal. His is evidence alludes to a recent frontpage article in the same newspaper by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which attacked Governor Evers for abandoning the Walker Administration’s stated transparency policy. He also reinforces a recent complaint from the Maciver Institute that the Evers administration failed to recognize its journalistic credentials. The complaints are accurately stated but there’s more to the story.

WILL and Maciver represent themselves as independent non-profit and non-partisan organizations in pursuit of the common good. That is not what they are. According to the Koch Brothers’ State Policy Network (SPN), which oversees WILL and Maciver, their purpose is to “communicate powerful, emotional messages that unite hearts and minds” in support of “a permanent infrastructure for freedom,” operationally defined as freedom from functioning government. According to former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, “This is a whole new weapon in the fight to advance liberty – and it is working.”

The source of the above quotes is a fundraising package sent to likeminded individuals by the SPN. It was given to me by a longtime conservative with the words, “this is too much! “Included in the package is a map of the United States that identifies organizations similar to WILL in every state. In Ohio it’s the Buckeye Institute. in Michigan it’s the Mackinac Center and in Iowa it is the Public Interest Institute. Wisconsin is unique among Midwestern states in that it has three such organizations, the Maciver Institute, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), recently renamed the Badger Institute, and WILL.

Between 2011 and 2018 the Koch brothers and their allies held sway over all three branches of Wisconsin government, which made it possible for them to change public policy anyway they wanted. The SPN, together with other Koch units including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Americans for Prosperity, succeeded in passing a great deal of “model” legislation on education, the environment, health care, government operations, public safety, transportation and voter and worker rights. They also succeeded in gerrymandering legislative district boundaries in ways that overrepresent Republicans in the Legislature.

Gov. Walker is right that use of the “new weapon” has been effective. With little transparency, it “worked,” to advance the Koch Machine’s political objectives, but it failed to produce many benefits for Wisconsin. During the Walker Era, state water quality problems worsened; the state civil service was weakened; incidents involving the misuse of military styled weapons became frequent; all levels of public education were continually under attack; roads deteriorated and voting and worker rights were undermined. It is good that Wisconsin is currently close to full employment, but the state’s recovery from the 2008 recession lagged behind all of its neighbors in producing well-paying jobs.

On Tuesday, September 24 WILL was once again on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal with a “powerful emotional” attack on the Madison School District for not immediately informing parents if a student expresses thoughts about gender change, even though, as explained in the article, the District’s aim is to gain students’ trust with the ultimate goal of involving the family.

WILL and other elements of the Koch Machine are free to broadcast whatever propaganda they want, but the Fourth Estate should look beneath the surface and beyond “he says she says” reporting to help people understand what is really going on.

–Stampen is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy analysis at UW–Madison.


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