In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX) President Todd Berry talked about the history of the organization, the misconceptions of the organization, WISTAX publications, and the impact of technology on WISTAX.
The Alliance began when Governor Phillip F. La Follette invited a group of Wisconsin’s business leaders to discuss emergency relief for unemployed Wisconsin workers during the Depression. As a result of those discussions, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance formed on February 15, 1932. Berry said the organization focuses on being an educational source for the public, the media, legislators and businesses. Berry said that while the world has changed in the past 85 years the organization’s mission has not.
The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance offers at least five publications. The Wisconsin Taxpayer is a monthly publication which describes and analyzes state and local government subjects. The Focus newsletter is published twice monthly, and provides up-to-date information, especially on executive and legislative action. Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance publishes a legislative directory which provides legislative contact information, detailed maps of all the legislative districts and a breakdown of vote shares. The SchoolFacts book provides a complete listing of all school district budgeted revenue and expenditure figures, staff sizes and ratios, test scores, salaries, property values, fund balances, and student characteristics for every school district in the state. The MunicipalFacts book provides information on all municipal spending (by category), debt, property taxes, and shared revenues. Additionally, WISTAX completes requested studies for organizations to evaluate the policy and impacts of issues facing Wisconsin. Berry said the Alliance is dedicated to educating the public on state and local government saying, “our mission is to teach and inform. We inform the public, teachers, students, lawmakers, and civic leaders.”
When asked about misconceptions of the organization Berry said, “Our name.” Berry highlighted that when the organization started in the 30’s it was a very different time. He said some people like to ascribe various activities or goals to the organization because of the name. Berry said, “People who are partisan like to infer things from our name, assuming we are politically motivated.” But Berry said he and WISTAX staff take nonpartisanship seriously, emphasizing how he, staff, and spouses gave up personal activities that might be construed as partisan or political.
Technology has changed significantly since the 1930s, and that has meant change for how the organization disseminates its information. Berry said many of their members still like receiving hard, tangible copies of their reports, so it still provides paper copies to members, subscribers, and the media. However, most of the publications are now available either online or digitally and found at wistax.org. Berry said WISTAX maintains a current website, Facebook page, and an ongoing blog. Berry said he thinks WISTAX’s future will involve more digital publications and social media platforms.
Berry was quick to emphasize that the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has a significant archive that goes back to the 1930s. “We have records that don’t exist many other places. We have become a research facility for some people. We have people from think tanks, the media, students, consultants, and others who use our resources,” Berry added.
When asked for final thoughts, Berry suggested the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance occupies a unique niche in the state, saying it is the only non-governmental nonpartisan statewide organization dedicated to civic research. Berry said there are a lot of people who value the organization and its research, regardless of political beliefs. Berry said one very important thing for the organization is its “brand equity” and its credibility. Berry said he and the staff take that reputation very seriously.