GREEN BAY - A plan to expand school vouchers in the legislature has politicians taking sides and money being spent in the hopes of winning over their votes.
A war is being waged over expanding the school voucher program in Wisconsin. Governor Walker wants it, while public schools oppose it. The two sides squared off in Green Bay this week.
"I'm not here for a fight I'm here to do what's right," said Governor Walker Monday night talking up the expansion at St. Thomas More School in Green Bay.
Across town, at the Green Bay School district board meeting parents were solicited to speak out against the vouchers.
"Vouchers are going to hurt our public schools," said one speaker.
Both sides have a financial stake in educating today's children. But this fight could come down to power and political influence.
The key figures in all that are John Gard, Scott Jensen and Jeff Fitzgerald, three former Republican legislators who all controlled the state Assembly in the powerful role as speaker.
All three are now lobbyists fighting for school vouchers working for privately funded lobbying organizations. Jensen is registered with American Federation for Children out of Washington, D.C., while Gard and Fitzgerald are paid by School Choice Wisconsin, the leading advocate for vouchers in the state.
"The reason those two gentlemen work on behalf of School Choice Wisconsin, they believe in the program. They've seen the results first hand. John Gard was there at the inception of the program and been part of this for more than 20 years," said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.
But clearly it's no secret they were hired for their political influence as well.
Following his failed U.S. Senate run, Jeff Fitzgerald gave up his Assembly seat in January and days later signed on to lobby for School Choice. He did not return our call for an interview.
Jay Heck with Common Cause Wisconsin though says Fitzgerald's role will have a big impact. Heck admits there is nothing illegal about the hire, but he says Fitzgerald's former leadership position can be used now to reclaim political favors.
"So there certainly is going to be a sense of beholden, of being beholden to him. So there is that. It is the influence," said Heck.
School Choice Wisconsin has a total of five registered lobbyists, including organization president Jim Bender. But Bender says even with Gard and Fitzgerald on his side he's still fighting a lopsided battle.
"Well I would look at it this way, when you take up the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, the school administrators, the business school administrators, Wisconsin Education Association Council, the teacher's union, they've got more than 20 lobbyists out there on the other side of the issue--we've got just a handful," countered Bender.
It's an expensive process, a FOX 11 Fact Check found School Choice Wisconsin spent $15,006 on lobbying efforts during 2011 the most recent budget year, accounting for a total of 198 hours of direct and indirect lobbying. The American Federation for Children spent $123,440 and 1,137 hours on lobbying.
In comparison WEAC, Wisconsin Education Association Council spent more than $2.2 million on a wide variety of lobbying efforts including the voucher issue in 2011. The second highest amount spent out of all organizations in the state accounting for 10,642 hours. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards lobbyists racked up $378,000 accounting for 4,721 hours.
"I mean that's how the game is played in Wisconsin. It's campaign contributions, it's hiring lobbyists that are well-know, influential, powerful," said Heck.
Speaking of campaign contributions, that's where those supporting vouchers excel.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates in 2009 and 2010 voucher leaning supporters funneled more than $3 million into the campaigns of Governor Walker and mostly Republican proponents of school vouchers, who were able to win back control of the legislature. In contrast, those viewed as voucher opponents spent only $1 million to elect mostly Democrats.
School Choice Wisconsin can't make political contributions but its related Fund for Parent Choice, also run by Bender, does. And in the past two years has contributed $200,000 to various campaigns. Larger amounts went to Governor Walker, nearly $10,000, and key supporters of vouchers in the state Senate focusing heavily on Republican candidates like Luther Olsen ($10,000), Randy Hopper ($9,500), Alberta Darling ($9,000), John Nygren ($4,000) and Scott Fitzgerald ($6,500), the brother of now lobbyist Jeff Fitzgerald.
In contrast State Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, received nothing from the Fund for Parent Choice. Ellis has been critical of the governor's voucher plan. He says ten Republican senators have expressed concern about the plan moving forward as outlined by Walker.
"I'm a state senator and I have a responsibility to do what I think is in the best interest of not only my district but the entire state of Wisconsin and on
the area of vouchers he's wrong," said Ellis.
Representative Andre Jacque, R-Bellevue, received $250 from the Fund for Parent Choice, but says you'd be hard-pressed to find a legislator who would admit to being influenced by the cash, or those lobbyists who have become part of a multi-million dollar industry.
"Certainly they're compensated fairly well for knowing the process and doing their best to try and influence legislators but I think ultimately legislators try to stay independent of that," said Jacque.
Currently the Governor's proposal to expand vouchers to districts with failing grades is running into a roadblock with several Republican senators including Ellis concerned about how districts would qualify for the plan and its implementation.
But voucher supporters are confident some sort of compromise can be worked out this legislative session.
Another conservative lobbying group, Americans for Prosperity Foundation Wisconsin, began pumping more money into the push for vouchers this week. It began running radio ads in Northeast Wisconsin in support of vouchers.
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