By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
As Darcy Haber sees it, being a member of the Wisconsin Realtors Association is not an option; it’s a professional necessity. Otherwise, the Madison Realtor would not have access to the Multiple Listing Service, a critical industry tool for tracking properties.
“I would argue that we can’t practice real estate in accordance with our ethics without it,” says Haber, a former lawyer, citing professional rules requiring licensees to stay abreast of “current market conditions.”
That’s why she’s upset that part of her past dues to the WRA have gone to groups she does not wish to support, as will an even larger share of future dues: “If money equals speech, then they’re violating my right to free speech, because I’m being forced to say something I don’t want to say.”
At issue is the WRA’s advocacy offshoot, the Wisconsin Homeowners Alliance, formed “to advance and promote issues of concern to all Wisconsin property owners.” The alliance purports to be “focused only on issues — not on candidates or political campaigns.”
The alliance raises money through a mandatory fee on WRA members. The dues for 2012, which must be paid by Dec. 31 to avoid a “reinstatement fee,” include an additional $30 to the alliance, for a total of $70. That means the WRA, which on its website claims more than 14,000 members, will increase the alliance’s annual revenues from about $600,000 a year to around $1 million.
In its federal tax filing for the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2010, the alliance reported spending $361,580 on “lobbying,” even though it’s not a state-registered lobby group. Asked what this money was used for, WRA president and CEO Mike Theo replies, “grassroots lobbying.”
In addition, the alliance gave cash grants totaling $260,000 to four groups: $30,000 each to the Greater Wisconsin Committee and the American Federation for Children, and $100,000 each to Building a Stronger Wisconsin and Wisconsin Club for Growth.
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group, all four have poured money into state political campaigns, mostly as attack “issue ads” and mailings. The Greater Wisconsin Committee and Building a Stronger Wisconsin back progressive and Democratic candidates. The American Federation for Children (a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for school choice) and Wisconsin Club for Growth favor conservatives and Republicans.
The WRA also runs a political action committee, RPAC, which the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports has given $144,239 to state political candidates since Jan. 1, 2009, including $54,125 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whom the association endorsed. But the $35 annual contribution to this PAC is voluntary (less than half the membership chips in), whereas payments to the Wisconsin Homeowners Alliance are not.
“This is taxation without representation,” complains Barry Mirkin, a Madison-area real estate broker. “Where do they get off saying you need to give us this money to be a Realtor when it’s got nothing to do with real estate? It’s for politics.”
Both Mirkin and Haber are members of Real Estate Professionals for a Better Wisconsin, a group that dissents from the WRA’s political agenda. They both suspect the WRA is hiking fees for the alliance in part to help fight the upcoming Walker recall effort.
Theo defends the alliance’s expenditures as consistent with its goal “to inform and engage citizens in the democratic process.” He says WRA “believes such activity is an appropriate professional responsibility and for that reason includes support for the (alliance) as a condition of membership.”
As for the fee increase, Theo says there have been nine unexpected electoral campaigns this year, with more likely in 2012. And the Legislature has maintained a high level of activity on issues of concern to his group. All this creates “more opportunities to inform citizens about issues that matter to property owners and Realtors.”
Theo adds that both WRA and the alliance have elected boards, and encourages members who agree or disagree with their decisions to “make their opinions known and participate in the existing governance selection process.”
Mirkin and Haber, though, say they objected to the policy at a Nov. 4 WRA meeting in Madison, but were left with the impression that nothing is likely to change.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
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