(Illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)
(Illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

Legislators work on cookie-cutter proposals sent out by right wing groups because gerrymandering means they don’t need to get bill ideas from their constituents.

The day after Rep. Barb Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) introduced a bill to ban transgender student athletes from participating in team sports, the Associated Press found that two dozen state lawmakers proposing similar bills around the country were unable to come up with real examples of the issue in their own states. 

That was a big red flag for Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire), who like many opponents of the bill, suspected that it was a coordinated nationwide effort

“You can’t tell me that the authors in Wisconsin have automatically come up with this idea at the same time as 20 other states. You know there’s some coordinated attack behind that,” Emerson said. “When you have legislation that is a solution in search of a problem, you have to wonder who is behind that. Because it’s not constituents coming forward and saying, ‘I was wronged by this.’”

The most likely suspect for this bill is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has drafted language for bills introduced in other states and is representing cisgender female athletes in Connecticut and Idaho to defend similar legislation. ADF openly supports similar bills but did not claim to have written them

Organizations like ADF rarely take credit publicly for the bills they put out for state lawmakers to use; instead they present themselves as advocacy organizations. But there is a big difference between advocating for certain policies or wanting to have a seat at the table where policy is made and churning out cookie-cutter bills without input from other stakeholders or the public and then handing them to state lawmakers.

“In my mind, a good legislator works for their constituents,” Emerson said. “And so if they’re not writing [legislation] on behalf of their constituents, you have to ask who they are working for?”

Who is setting the agenda?

Normally a bill is made when a legislator has an idea or hears about an issue from a constituent or reads a report on an issue. They then meet and work with stakeholders–community members, industry and other experts–to figure out how they can best address the issue with legislation. 

One of the benefits of this process is transparency: you may not agree with the legislation or how it approaches the issue, but at least with this process, you know where it came from.

“At least if we’re working with direct stakeholders, [for] example, the Tavern League [of Wisconsin] or the [Wisconsin] Restaurant Association, we know who members of the Tavern League and the Restaurant Association are; they’re our businesses,” Emerson said.  “But we don’t necessarily know where the money for Americans for Prosperity is coming from. So then you go into this deep rabbit hole of [trying to find out] where is the money coming from that puts these pieces of legislation out there.”

One of the most well-known and powerful of these organizations is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which gives legislators and corporations the same level of voting power on model legislation. ALEC is a tiered, pay-to-play organization, so members have access to information based on which tier they are on, which makes it challenging to trace specific bills the legislators or corporate members who authored them.

State lawmakers and the Center for Media and Democracy monitor the organization to anticipate what could be coming down the pike and so they can recognize a bill from ALEC when it’s introduced. While it’s hard to definitively say which lawmakers’ bills were written by ALEC, Emerson said that during the hearing process, “you can tell.”

“Half the time the legislators don’t even know the details that are in the bills,” Emerson said. “You can tell when somebody has to look at their staff to get the answer, or has to look to somebody else to get the answer [to a question on the bill] that they weren’t the ones that were really digging in it and coming up with the ideas.”

There are quite a few parallels between the organization’s and Wisconsin Republicans’ priorities. Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) pointed out that ALEC has been pushing bills on everything from promoting voucher schools and privatizing education to blocking raises to the minimum wage, regulation of environmental pollution or any regulation on businesses. And the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the organization from continuing to push such policies.

“They’re using the pandemic to try to further these already existing aims of making the rich richer, making sure that corporations have less accountability to the public, and dismantling really important public institutions,” Roys said. 

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, ALEC pushed lawmakers to prioritize reopening the economy, regardless of what the risk would be to workers and the general public. 

At both of its policy summits on July 23 and Dec. 3 last year, ALEC pushed a bill that would restrict the ability of governors and health officials to declare or extend states of emergency. Wisconsin Republicans have prioritized restricting Gov. Tony Evers’ and health officials’ emergency declaration powers since Evers instituted Safer at Home, even though polling found the majority of Wisconsinites approved of such coronavirus safeguards. Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) was invited to speak at a workshop at last summer’s summit titled “COVID-19 & Outdated Emergency Management Acts Facilitated Gubernatorial Overreach.”

ALEC pushed for legislation to protect businesses from COVID-19 related lawsuits, despite national polling showing that the majority of Americans opposed extending such blanket immunity to businesses. In Wisconsin, such a provision was passed as part of a COVID-19 relief bill,  despite the fact that no such cases had been filed in the state.

The question is why, during a global pandemic with so many people struggling, would lawmakers prioritize policies that do not address or ameliorate the crisis and that are also not popular with the public? 

“In Wisconsin, I think it comes down to gerrymandering,” Emerson said. “It comes down to the fact that because of gerrymandering, many politicians feel that they don’t have to be responsive to their constituents. And so they’re responsive to the people who put them in power, which is the organizations that help draw the maps.”

And ALEC has been preparing for this year’s redrawing of district maps. Last May, ALEC and Fair Lines America, a nonprofit opposed to nonpartisan districting commissions and operator of the conservative site The American Redistricting Project, held a six-part webinar on redistricting for its legislative members. 

Members of ALEC’s working group on elections and redistricting attended the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, where they promoted the myth that the last Presidential election was fraudulent. Those claims have been used to justify a slew of voter suppression bills in Wisconsin and across the country. ALEC Action, the organization’s official advocacy arm, has put out a talking points memo for conservatives on the “For The People Act,” which would quash many state voter suppression laws. 

Emerson and other Democratic lawmakers see this year’s upcoming fight over redistricting as a key battleground over how much influence organizations like ALEC will have to set Wisconsin’s legislative agenda. 

“Until we can tackle gerrymandering and campaign finance reform, we’re just gonna see more and more and more of this happening,” Emerson said. “The fact that this year we are going to be drawing new legislative maps, tells us that we have an opportunity to put a stop to this.”

Editor’s Note: Rep. Jodi Emerson is the spouse of UpNorthNews reporter Julian Emerson.