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WTA doesn’t deserve bad rap

Matt Pommer

A powerful Democratic legislator is busy trying to discredit the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, contending that it is “a biased special interest with strong ties to both a large business lobby and the Republican Party.”

For 77 years the WTA has provided objective analyses of government issues in Wisconsin for newspapers and the public. It is widely recognized by the news media as an independent voice.

State Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, has been sniping at the WTA since he entered the Legislature. The theme hasn’t changed: Many of the WTA directors served on the board of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and gave money to GOP candidates.

Five months into office in 1999, Pocan claimed the WTA “clearly offered only a partisan bent to their analysis.”

Then he said, “We think it’s time that the people of Wisconsin realize that the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance is not looking out for them, but rather for the special interests of the Republican Party.”

What is new is that Pocan is now one of the most powerful legislators in the state Capitol, serving as co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. That alone makes his McCarthy-like, guilt-by-association charges stunning.

Over the years, governors and the party in power have been annoyed at the independent financial analyses provided by the WTA. A prime example came in the mid-1990s when the WTA questioned whether the state could afford the financial policies of then Gov. Tommy Thompson and the growing structural deficits.

On two occasions Thompson appeared before the WTA board and denounced the research being done. One former director described Thompson as “shouting” at the board meetings.

Also new is the response from Todd Berry, president of the WTA. He usually ignores criticism, but, in a seven-paragraph statement, he defended the independence of the group, adding “truth can be uncomfortable at times.” He recalled Republicans were displeased with the WTA in the 1990s.

Under its written policy, the board of directors functions to ensure the financial viability of the organization, much like a hospital board, Berry said.

A majority of the current board of directors donated money to Gov. Jim Doyle’s election campaign, Berry said. The outgoing chairman, Jay Williams, publicly backed Doyle. The former chair, Dale Schuh of Stevens Point, donated nearly equal money to both Republicans and Democrats.

Berry said neither Pocan nor others assailing the WTA have ever asked about the board’s role or function.

Pocan’s latest criticism urges newspapers call the WTA a “biased special interest.”

Editors ignored the freshman legislator 10 years ago. Now that he is in a leadership role, Pocan may find editors will not only reject his “advice” but also may call it an irresponsible, cheap shot.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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