On Monday, Wisconsin Examiner wrote about a bill draft being circulated with a memo by Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) and Rep. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron) to give taxpayer funds to a group that shares little information with the public. The legislation, giving a half-million dollars to controversial anti-abortion pregnancy resource centers, raises questions about the organization that would receive those public funds in a no-bid contract.
It’s not easy to find information about Choose Life Wisconsin, Inc. It is a 501(c)(3) that receives less than $50,000 a year, so it’s only required to file a Form 990-N, also called an e-postcard, with the Internal Revenue Service. The ‘e-postcard’ is a very brief, electronic-only version of the far more detailed 990s larger organizations file, and contains only basic information.
Julaine Appling, president of Choose Life Wisconsin Inc., provided a copy of her postcard filing of the 990-N upon request from the Examiner. The IRS 990-N for Choose Life’s IRS listing–as with all 990-N listings–tells only the organization’s name, mailing address, principal officer’s name and address, website and whether the organization has terminated.
In the case of Choose Life Wisconsin, the filing reveals that it is co-located at 2801 International Ln Suite 112 in Madison with Appling’s other organization, Wisconsin Family Action. Also located there, according to Choose Life’s voicemail recording, is the Wisconsin Family Council. The other two organizations are included on the voicemail recording. Choose Life Wisconsin is not mentioned.
Why $500,000 and to what end?
Appling also responded to questions on the genesis of the pending legislation.
“We really had nothing to do with the bill,” she says. “Rep. Quinn and Sen. Bernier did this pretty much on their own, knowing about the good work of Choose Life Wisconsin as it uses the proceeds from the sale of license plates to help fund Wisconsin’s excellent pregnancy care centers.”
Excellent is not how Sara Finger of Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health would describe these centers. As she told the Examiner on Monday, “This blatant attempt to fund anti-abortion organizations would funnel money to centers that deny women medically accurate information. The Republican majority is out of touch with what women in Wisconsin need. We are perfectly capable of making healthcare decisions for ourselves.”
Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy, in his column Murphy’s Law, sums up the issue of the public’s right to know well: “But there may be another issue here of concern to all taxpayers, regardless of their views on abortion: How do we know how Choose Life will spend this money? And if the goal is to provide $25,000 to pregnancy centers, why isn’t the state doing the funding directly to make sure the taxpayers’ interests are being protected?”
These questions were also raised when the “Choose Life” license plates, which were made available in 2017, were being debated. In the end, the legislature did not approve the plates. But backers found a way for charitable causes to collect $25 from these plates (and others), detailed by the state Department of Transportation here. (In case another group wants to get its own specialized license plates.)
License plate sales
Appling adds that “to date, over 1,200 of the license plates have been sold; and money from the sale of those plates has been given to 25 different pregnancy care centers in our state.”
DOT spokesman Terry Walsh provides information that backs up that total, and can be found here. He cites totals of 1,095 plates purchased since they were made available in October 2017 through 2018. Add in those purchased this year, according to Walsh, and the total that has been collected from the Choose Life license plate is $61,308 from 1,417 Choose Life license plates.
This is significantly less than other states, according to a Choose Life Wisconsin press release. When the group celebrated the issuing of its first plate in October of 2017, it noted that “Indiana has raised $650,000 and Ohio has raised over $500,000. Both states have over 25,000 cars sporting their Choose Life plates.”
Choose Life Vice President Dan Miller said in the press-release, “We are confident the plate will sell quickly and are excited to open up a funding stream for Wisconsin’s Pregnancy Resource Centers, which offer health services, adoption referrals, and in general help women in crisis pregnancies make lifesaving choices.”
That same release offers up Choose Life Wisconsin’s mission, “to spread a positive, pro-life message and help Wisconsin’s vital Pregnancy Resource Centers flourish by funding them from the proceeds of the sale of the Choose Life plate.”
If that is the only source of funding for Choose Life, it remains well below the $50,000 threshold needed to file just the 990-N postcard even in its best year, This is why the Charity Navigator and Guidestar, two sources that check the validity and standing of non-profit organizations, do not list anything more than the most basic information about the group.
Registered LLC charity
The only additional information gleaned from these sites is that Choose Life’s classification is “right to life” and that it is independent, defined as “not affiliated with a National, Regional, or Geographic grouping of organizations.”
Jess Noelck, communications director of the state agency that oversees charities — the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) — confirms that Choose Life Wisconsin, Inc. “is a registered LLC in good standing since 2012, and appears to be an offshoot of the Wisconsin Family Council, a registered charity since 1987.”
The group’s articles of incorporation, filed with DFI on March 2, 2012 by Appling, leave powers that include bylaws, governance, indemnification and appointments up to its board of directors. They also give the board the power to make amendments with a two-thirds vote. The documents note the group will have no members—all of which appears to be standard language. The nonprofit’s website names Appling and Miller as vice president, but does not appear to include any listing of a board of directors.
Appling demurs when asked for more information on Choose Life’s work and the pregnancy centers it funds, saying, “I really believe you should talk to the legislative authors on this question. Thanks.”
Quinn and Bernier did not respond to queries on the need for the bill, how the money and its impact would be accounted for or why funding that was approved would go through Choose Life rather than directly to the centers.