Tuesday, March 11, 2014

This week in WisGOP corruption, Ashley style

As what often happens in Wisconsin these days, connections to Governor Scott Walker are repaid with state action and Walker campaign appearances, and our media doesn't call him on the carpet for clear pay-to-play. It happened again yesterday, when Walker visited Ashley Furniture as a "special guest" for a media event (i.e., closed to the public) touting its recent expansion in the Trempealeau County community of Arcadia. But in fact, the expansion was just an excuse for Walker and Ashley's TeaBagging founder to hold a "Walker 2014" campaign event.
The governor cited initiatives such as a manufacturing tax credit, which will eliminate virtually all tax liability for production in Wisconsin by 2016, and worker training for helping keep companies like Ashley.

Walker also said he’s working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a plan to move a creek away from a planned expansion of Ashley’s plant in Arcadia.

“(Those) are things that we can do that are legitimate things that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the DNR can work on and help them grow and expand,” Walker said.

Ashley and the DNR came under fire from environmental watchdogs for a 2005 addition there that required filling 13.5 acres of wetlands. Without that expansion, the company said later, most of the company’s 2,000 Arcadia-based jobs would have been moved out of state.

From a table of literature spread out for visitors, [Ashley Furniture founder and board chair] Ron Wanek grabbed a flyer decrying federal regulations, including environmental, workplace and health care rules, saying, “This is what’s going to kill industry in the United States.”
Yes, why would we want environmental regulations in scenic Western Wisconsin? I mean, look at how well lowering those regulations in the similarly-scenic environment of West Virginia worked out earlier this year, when 300,000 residents couldn't drink their tap water after a chemical spill. Or in North Carolina, where the Dan River looked like this after a coal ash spill from Duke Energy last month.

Bad enough that Ashley Furniture's founder is promoting policies that lead to results like what we've seen in Appalachia over the recent months. But there's also plenty of history between Walker and Ashley Furniture before yesterday's meeting. This wasn't the first time Walker pulled the "business visit/campaign stop" routine at Ashley's plant. Walker was also there a week before the 2012 recall election to commemorate the plant's groundbreaking, meeting with captive employers. It called to mind a similar incident in Ohio when right-wing CEO Bob Murray made his Murray Energy coal miners at a plant listen to a speech by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Romney later used those images of workers in attendance in a commercial.

Wanek had thanked Walker in other ways before that visit. Wanek, his family and other Ashley employees had given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Walker over the last 3 years. They also like nearby State Rep. Warren Petryk, whose district is outside of Trempealeau County, but that didn't stop him from getting 4 max donations from Wanek family members in June 2012.

And Walker has paid back Wanek and his company for that support. First of all, Walker is the chairman of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's (WEDC) Board of Directors, and as One Wisconsin Now points out, Ashley was one of many Walker donators that received tax credits in the unaccountable organization's first year. Ashley could get up to $650,000 written off on its taxes based on this unilateral action, which isn't a bad return on investment in Walker's campaign if you're the Wanek family.

Walker also tried to help Ashley Furniture and related industries by trying to deregulate Wisconsin's rent-to-own industry in his last budget. This proposal would have allowed companies to hide from consumers just how much interest they were being charged, among other reductions in disclosure, and let me direct you to a story from Jack Craver of the Capital Times from last year, which talks about a proposal that was so heinous, even Legislative Republicans found themselves backing away from it.
Mike Mikalsen, chief-of-staff to state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, one of the few Republicans who have opposed rent-to-own deregulation in the past, said the policy was made entirely as a favor to Ashley Furniture, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of low-cost furniture that supplies many of the products in rent-to-own outlets.

Ashley, a large state employer, is not registered to lobby this session, but last session it reported spending $94,000 lobbying the Legislature just on the rent-to-own issue.

The other big backer of the measure is Rent-A-Center, a rent-to-own chain based in Plano, Texas. Last session it reported spending $192,000 lobbying the Legislature. Representing its interests is one of the top lobbyists in town, Eric Petersen, who, in addition to having an impressive array of powerful corporate interests on his client list, seems to be the go-to guy for stigmatized interest groups — payday lenders, tobacco companies, bail bonds, to name a few.
The Joint Finance Committee eventually removed this deregulation of the rent-to-own industry from the budget, so it hasn't become law yet. But when we see Walker showing up at Ashley Furniture for his 2014 campaign like he did his 2012 campaign, you gotta ask- what's the payback that's expected this time? Both from the Wanek family and other Ashley execs when it comes to contributing to Walker's campaign, as well as what kind of legislation is Walker thinking of cooking up if he slips by both John Doe Deux and Mary Burke and gets re-elected. You know it can't be anything that helps us 99%-ers.

And it's also yet another indictment of the Wisconsin media. Yes, Chris Hubbuch of the La Crosse Tribune deserves some credit for giving context of Ashley Furniture's favoritism, and in relaying Ron Wanek's TeaBagging speech (even more disgraceful is that Wanek did this in front of a captive audience of employees). However, it wasn't nearly good enough, and if we had a real media in this state, they'd ask "Gov. Walker, given that you've already had sketchy dealings with Ashley Furniture, why did you decide to show up at this event? Was something promised?"

They may not be asking that, but you sure should. And the next time you get some furniture, you might not want to go to Ashley Furniture and put the cash into Ron Wanek's pockets.

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