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Wisconsin billionaires quietly bankroll effort to shrink state’s social safety net

A group funded by deep-pocketed GOP donors is pushing to make it harder to vote and to receive unemployment insurance and Medicaid

Adam Gibbs, a visiting fellow of the Opportunity Solutions Project, the lobbying arm of the Foundation for Government Accountability, testifies at one of three separate April 12, 2023, committee hearings for bills that would restrict state benefits for unemployed and low income residents. He previously worked for several lawmakers, most recently as the communications director for state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg. (Screenshot via WisconsinEye)
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  • The Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, has courted Republican lawmakers across the country, including in Wisconsin, to enact more barriers to voting and accessing social programs.
  • Top donors to the organization include wealthy Wisconsin-based conservative groups such as the Bradley Foundation and Ed Uihlein Family Foundation.
  • To help pass legislation, the organization has hired former legislative aides and flown Republican lawmakers to out-of-state “educational” seminars. 

Republican lawmakers held a day of back-to-back public hearings in mid-April for bills that would add restrictions to receiving unemployment insurance payouts, ban local guaranteed income programs and prevent state agencies from automatically renewing low-income health insurance

A lead proponent testifying at the Capitol was a former Republican legislative aide representing a Florida-based advocacy group with no membership and tens of millions of anonymous donations. One Republican lawmaker noted it was the third time that afternoon that Adam Gibbs had spoken in favor of the bills, all which were aimed at dismantling the state’s social safety net.

“Busy day in the Legislature,” replied Gibbs, communications director for the nonprofit Foundation for Government Accountability.

His pitch that April afternoon was succinct: Wisconsin employers struggle to fill jobs because the state’s unemployment insurance benefits — which are among the bottom third of benefits in the nation — are too generous.

“One of the fastest ways that we can deal with Wisconsin’s ongoing workforce shortage is to keep people who are still in the labor market, those recently unemployed, productively engaged in the workforce,” Gibbs told members of the Assembly Committee on Workforce Development and Economic Opportunities.

The committee later voted 10-5 along party lines to advance the four bills that would add barriers to unemployed workers receiving cash payments from the state. The bills sailed through the Republican-controlled Legislature with only that single public hearing.

Once sent to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ desk they’ll likely be blocked. Evers has vetoed similar bills in the past and a spokesperson told Wisconsin Watch that “similar if not identical legislation” would face the same fate.

But in Republican-controlled states, FGA and its lobbying arm, Opportunity Solutions Project, have racked up a series of wins. Recently, FGA got national attention for its successful drive to relax child labor restrictions in Iowa and Arkansas. A similar effort supported by the group is pending in the Missouri legislature.

Major Wisconsin Republican benefactors have fueled FGA’s successes. They include the Uihlein family, owners of the Pleasant Prairie-based Uline Industries, and the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee.

Richard W. Graber has served as CEO of the Bradley Foundation since 2016 and two years on the board of directors before that. The Milwaukee-based foundation is a major donor to conservative causes with, according to IRS filings, at least $2.75 million in cash contributions to the FGA between 2013 to 2021. (Angela Peterson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

In Wisconsin — where unemployment remained at a record low of 2.4% in May — the group has pushed bills that would broaden the definition of workplace misconduct to ease unemployment benefit denials as well as empower the Legislature’s budget committee to veto future federal jobless relief. It also opposes Medicaid expansion and supports certain election changes such as purging the names of ineligible voters from election rolls and making it harder for clerks to correct minor mistakes on absentee ballot envelopes.

Opponents of the bills include the left-leaning Main Street Alliance which organizes small businesses for grassroots advocacy on economic and social issues. Interim policy director Shawn Phetteplace said dark money pro-business groups like FGA enjoy privileged access with the Republican leadership setting the agenda.

“There are a lot of ex-Republican operatives,” he said. “And so it’s like you leave the building and go right back in on the other side.”

A Wisconsin Watch analysis of the 2021-22 session found that of the 17 bills passed with Opportunity Solutions Project/FGA support, Evers vetoed all but one. The lobbying group also opposed a Democratic-sponsored bill that would extend Medicaid for eligible women for a full year after childbirth; Republicans refused to schedule a hearing, and the GOP-led budget committee stripped it from the governor’s budget. The group also supported 16 bills that ultimately did not pass both chambers.

FGA and its lobbying arm in recent years have kept a relatively low profile despite collecting millions in funding, hiring at least 115 lobbyists and flying lawmakers, including some from Wisconsin, across the country for educational seminars.

In Wisconsin, Opportunity Solutions Project reported three registered lobbyists — two of them in state — and $106,863 in lobbying expenditures during the 2021-22 session. This year’s numbers aren’t in yet, but a Wisconsin Watch tally puts its lobbying expenditures at nearly $275,000 between 2017 and 2022.

Secret donors seek to influence state policy

Watchdogs that monitor dark money groups say FGA is just the latest example of an advocacy organization bankrolled by a small network of billionaire activists intent on deregulation, dismantling welfare protections and restricting voting rights.

FGA doesn’t disclose its donors. But IRS data tracked by the Center for Media and Democracy, which investigates the influence of money in politics, show some of the largest checks came from foundations tied to conservative causes.

The Ed Uihlein Family Foundation donated $17.85 million between 2014 and 2021, according to tax filings. The Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee gave $2.75 million over a similar period. 

FGA’s lobbying arm isn’t required to disclose its funding sources. Critics call that a loophole in the law, giving donors the ability to secretly influence public policy. 

The IRS says charitable foundations like FGA aren’t supposed to engage in substantial political lobbying. But like other similar groups, it shares office space, staffers and other resources with its lobbying arm. Such arrangements allow donors to make tax deductible donations that ultimately end up being used for lobbying.

David Armiak, research director with the Center for Media and Democracy, called it a “bit of a wild wild west with these groups.”

“There’s just not that much analysis or investigations or audits into these groups to see if this stuff is really legal,” he added.

Gibbs has a business card identifying his employer as the tax-exempt foundation — while also testifying on behalf of Opportunity Solutions Network, the group registered to lobby lawmakers. Until last year, Gibbs had worked in several legislative offices including most recently as the communications director for state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg.

Gibbs told Wisconsin Watch it’s a common practice among charities, including progressive groups, to have both nonprofit and lobbying arms.

“We’re like any of the other ones: NAACP, Sierra Club, all of those types of organizations,” Gibbs said. “We have to file the necessary paperwork with the IRS. But we protect the identity of donors as well, just like all those other organizations do.”

Armiak agreed the issue is bipartisan.

“It’s a problem that exists on both sides of the political spectrum,” he said. “But it’s been exploited because the IRS has been defunded and defanged.”

A review of lobbying records found that Opportunity Solutions Project has focused on public assistance programs, health insurance and election reform. This session, it opposed a rule that would have allowed Wisconsin clerks to correct minor mistakes on absentee ballot envelopes. 

FGA is part of the State Policy Network, a national network of conservative nonprofits. Other network affiliates active in the Badger State include the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty law firm, the Badger Institute, MacIver Institute and Institute for Reforming Government. Armiak said having the same messages and proposals amplified by multiple groups gives them additional weight.

“There are all these different groups, and experts that are calling for one thing, right?” he said. “When in fact, they’re basically the same thing funded by a handful of very wealthy interests.”

Group pays for lawmakers’ travel

At least half a dozen Wisconsin Republican lawmakers have traveled out of state at FGA’s expense for educational seminars. They include Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, who reported $800 in in-kind donations from the group to attend a legislative conference last December in Florida. He declined to comment.

Wisconsin Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, during a state Senate session on June 7, 2023, in the Wisconsin State Capitol. He reported participating in an FGA-funded two-day visit to Naples, Florida in December 2022 that included a “leadership dinner” with Gov. Ron DeSantis and other lawmakers from around the nation. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

In April Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, Sen. Cory Tomczyk, R-Mosinee, and Rep. Clint Moses, R-Menomonie, traveled to Nashville for a two-day meeting at FGA’s expense. The lawmakers have not yet reported the cost of that three-day trip. 

“It was not a super partisan convention or anything like that,” Moses told Wisconsin Watch. “Just more of a think tank.”

Moses said there were Republican lawmakers from at least a half-dozen Midwestern and Southern states. The thrust of the agenda was cutting Medicaid fraud and making it harder for able-bodied adults to draw benefits rather than return to work.

“There’s a lot of people that are not in the workforce that are on the sidelines and choosing not to go back to work,” Moses said.

He brushed off the fact that unemployment rates have cratered with labor participation higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“I’ve heard that argument: Unemployment rates are at a record low and this and that,” he said. “But we still have, obviously, people that are not working and we still have a huge demand.”

He added that demographic changes that include an aging population combined with declining fertility rates also factor into employers’ struggles to find workers.

Feyen also traveled in December to a two-day FGA “educational” seminar in Naples, Florida, at a value of $1,983. 

Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond Du Lac, assistant majority leader in the Senate, on June 7, 2023 in the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. He’s reported traveling out-of-state at FGA’s expense to attend “educational meetings” to advance the Florida group’s legislative agenda. He’s co-sponsored several bills to restrict access to unemployment insurance in Wisconsin. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

The sessions included presentations by FGA of its legislative agenda in other states and how similar legislation could work in Wisconsin.

“If something’s working successfully in other states, we want to try and replicate that here,” Feyen said. 

Even though Evers vetoed nearly all of the FGA-backed bills, Feyen said he’s not discouraged, having reintroduced three bills relating to unemployment insurance the day after the meeting in Tennessee.

“We’re bringing some of these bills back, hoping that the governor will finally come around,” Feyen said.

Bills face Evers’ veto pen

With unemployment rates at historic lows Democrats question why Republican lawmakers are focused on increasing barriers to unemployment assistance.

“This is a cynical distraction from the work that we should be doing,” Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, said. “But thankfully, they’re not becoming law.”

Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison photographed on June 28, 2023 in the Wisconsin State Capitol, has assailed the FGA-backed legislation to restrict unemployment benefits as out-of-step. Democrats instead have pushed for expanded childcare services, paid family leave and workforce training to tackle the state’s labor challenges. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

Civil rights, social welfare and public health advocates said in a May 31 letter the four unemployment bills were rushed through legislative committees without much chance for public comment. Three of the bills received public hearings in separate committee meetings at the same time.

Main Street Alliance, the left-leaning small business advocacy group, was one of the more than two dozen signatories. Phetteplace said pro-business groups like FGA that are awash in dark money claim to advocate for small business employers but are out of step with ordinary people.

“For a long time, you’ve had this sense of identity theft, where you have organizations that claim that they’re speaking on behalf of small business, when really they’re speaking on behalf of their corporate donors,” he said.

Editor’s note: The story and a photo caption were corrected to clarify that the Bradley Foundation is not a family foundation.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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