The state's recently rescinded $500,000 grant to United Sportsmen of Wisconsin was on the minds of Democratic lawmakers during a public hearing Tuesday on a bill to create "Choose Life" license plates.
Reps. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau) and Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton), members of the Assembly Committee on Transportation, leveled questions regarding the nonprofit status and political affiliation of Choose Life Wisconsin, Inc. at Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), sponsor of AB 206; Julaine Appling, president of Choose Life Wisconsin; and vice-president Matt Sande. The nonprofit was established to receive the $25 annual reissuance fee for the special plates (the state still collects the regular $15 vehicle registration fee) for distribution to crisis pregnancy centers in Wisconsin.
"I hate to say it, but it seems I've heard this story before about non-profit statuses for various groups that are trying to receive taxpayer money," said Danou.
Appling is president of Wisconsin Family Action, a conservative organization that opposes abortion and gay marriage, and Sande is the legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, an anti-abortion group that also opposes contraception.
Danou questioned the political affiliations of Choose Life Wisconsin's leaders and the idea of broaching the divisive topic of reproductive rights with state license plates.
"No matter what side of the issue you stand on, you can't argue that it's not a political issue," he said. "We've seen enough division in this state."
Earlier this month, Governor Scott Walker canceled a $500,000 Department of Natural Resources grant awarded in August to the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation.
The hunting and fishing grant was rescinded after it was discovered that the group misrepresented its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and relevant experience in outdoor education. The group had also engaged in political advocacy, including lobbying.
During the hearing Tuesday, Schaber (D-Appleton) questioned the current tax-exempt status of Choose Life Wisconsin, calling that an "important part" of the license partnership.
According to Sande, Choose Life Wisconsin is incorporated and has applied to the IRS for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which means donations to the group could be tax-deductible.
But Eric Koch, legislative aide to Schaber, says that it is still a "concern" that Jacque's bill would be passed before Choose Life Wisconsin receives tax-exempt status.
Critics are concerned that Choose Life Wisconsin has not made its bylaws available to the public, and that the bill's author claims to not have seen them. Schaber asked for a copy of the group's financial statement and bylaws during the hearing, but had yet to receive a copy as of Wednesday morning, according to her office.
"They could lobby state legislature, hold get-out-the-vote drives," Koch says. "There's a number of things that 501(c)(3)'s can do with their revenue."
The United Sportsmen grant was mentioned explicitly only once by Danou, who was immediately shouted down by Rep. Alvin Ott (R-Forest Junction) and asked by committee chairman Rep. Keith Ripp (R-Lodi) to "direct comments to the bill."
Later in the hearing, Ott seemed to lose his temper with Schaber's questioning, and told her to "knock off" the "witch hunt."
Crisis pregnancy centers have generated national controversy. Funded by anti-abortion forces most claim to offer comprehensive counseling services for pregnant women but do not refer for abortion. An investigation by NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin found that 10 crisis centers visited throughout the Madison, Milwaukee and Janesville areas provided medically inaccurate information about the consequences of abortion, including its link to breast cancer, which has been rejected by the National Cancer Institute.
At Tuesday's hearing, three speakers spoke in support of the Choose Life bill and one in opposition. But 66 individuals registered against the bill, while only one person -- Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), the sponsor of the bill's Senate counterpart (SB 176), registered in favor.
[Editor's note: This report is corrected to state that Choose Life Wisconsin is incorporated and has applied to the IRS for nonprofit status.]