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Anti-tax group rally puts Madison on national stage

David Callender  —  10/17/2007 8:07 am

With the state budget the last in the nation to be mired in wrangling over proposed tax increases, and with anti-tax forces set to descend on the Capitol Wednesday, Wisconsin has become a key battleground in the fight over taxation.

"Wisconsin is right on the forefront" of the debate over higher taxes and government-funded health care, said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a national anti-tax group that is the driving force behind Wednesday's rally.

Although the legislative debate in Wisconsin has focused on raising the state's cigarette tax and imposing a new tax on hospitals to fund the expansion of health care for low-income families, Phillips said the issue remains the same as in other states: whether residents are willing to pay higher taxes for the expansion of government programs.

"The real question for people is whether they believe the state of Wisconsin is spending their money wisely and efficiently," Phillips said. "The answer we hear from people and from polling is no."

The three-year-old national group has gained a high profile in recent years as a touchstone for conservative anti-tax activists. Earlier this month, the group sponsored a two-day "Defending the American Dream Summit" in Washington, D.C., that invited all of the presidential candidates in both parties and drew all of the major Republicans.

Phillips said the national group has identified three issues as its top priorities -- taxes, health care and global warming -- for grass-roots action against government. Two of those three issues are in play in Wisconsin, putting it on the short list of roughly a half-dozen states the group is targeting for special attention.

The Madison rally comes as the Republican-controlled Assembly and Democratic-controlled Senate remain deadlocked over a new state budget.

On Monday, the two houses met in special session to consider a last-minute "compromise" budget offered by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. The Senate passed Doyle's proposal, but the Assembly rejected it on a 53-44 vote that crossed party lines.

Wednesday's rally will feature speeches by Phillips, radio talk show hosts Vicki McKenna of Madison and Pat Snyder of Wausau, conservative bloggers Fred Dooley ("The Real Debate") and Owen Robinson ("Boots and Sabers"), and state Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus.

New networking

Mark Block, the director of Americans for Prosperity's Wisconsin branch, said the Assembly's rejection of Doyle's proposal has strengthened the position of anti-tax forces.

More than two dozen lawmakers have signed pledges sponsored by the group or similar anti-tax groups vowing to vote against any budget that raises taxes. All of the lawmakers who signed the pledge voted against Doyle's proposal on Monday.

Block said the presence of bloggers and radio talk show hosts on the dais is an example of how new media like the Internet and talk radio have changed grass-roots organizing.

Where it once might have taken weeks or months to mobilize public opinion on an issue, it now takes a matter of days or even hours, said Block, a longtime Republican strategist. Block got into trouble for coordinating then Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox's 1997 reelection campaign with the activities of an outside group and was fined a record $15,000. At the heart of that controversy was a decision by Block to supply a mailing list from Wilcox's campaign to the outside group, the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation.

With the Internet and blogs, Block said, groups can compile their own lists of interested citizens without having to seek such information from campaigns or other groups. And once those individuals have been targeted, he said, instead of sending a postcard to one person, "you can send him an e-mail that he'll forward to two or three more people."

Unions push back

Block said his group plans to bring buses of taxpayers from La Crosse, Eau Claire, Wausau, and Madison.

But he said some members "are shying away from attending" because they won't be alone in rallying at the Capitol. "They don't want any confrontation."

The state AFL-CIO and the public employees' union AFSCME will mount a counter-demonstration on the fringes of the main rally, said Sara Rogers, executive vice president of the state AFL-CIO.

The unions intend to "welcome the out-of-state, anti-government" activists with a "peaceful, quiet, non-verbal welcome to reality," she said.

Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said the unions plan to hold a press conference before the rally demonstrating how the Legislature's failure to pass a budget will have real consequences.

The state Department of Public Instruction is already preparing to mail notices to local school districts announcing that their state aids will be about $79 million less than predicted because of the lack of a new state budget. School districts will then have to choose between cutting programs and raising property taxes to make up for the lack of state funds.

Beil said that based on the Americans for Prosperity's past public statements, "They're going to say that the responsible position is to have no state budget."

That is not true, he said, "and we will have plenty of people impacted by not having a state budget" on hand to counter that message.

"The elected officials need to be responsible and not act like children in a sand box. We're clearly getting to the point where there will be real cuts and real pain to real people," he said.

But Phillips, the national president of Americans for Prosperity, dismissed those arguments and charged that unlike those attending his group's rally, the unions are motivated by a direct financial interest in higher taxes and government spending.

"The people coming to our rally are there because they genuinely care. They're doing it because they think enough is enough. Usually the public employees are there because they're told they've got to increase spending or they won't get more money," he said.

He said the threats of cuts to vital government programs "are told to us in state after state. It's the same old tired arguments and it's not really real. Families have to rein in their own spending. Governments have to do that every once in awhile. The government sees taxpayers as a piggybank and that's just wrong."

David Callender  —  10/17/2007 8:07 am

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