Two of Wisconsin’s oldest nonpartisan research organizations — which combine for nearly 200 years of distilling state and local fiscal and policy issues — are joining forces at the end of the year.
The Madison-based Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, founded in 1932, and the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum, founded in 1913, plan to merge while maintaining offices in both cities.
Alliance president Todd Berry is retiring at the end of the year and forum president Rob Henken, 54, will lead the new, yet-to-be-named organization.
Henken has led the Public Policy Forum since 2008. He previously served in Milwaukee County government as research director for the Milwaukee County Board, director of health and human services and director of administrative services. Before that, he directed the Alliance for Future Transit and the Milwaukee Jobs Initiative.
Berry, 66, who has led his group since 1994, will be an adviser to the new group. Research director Dale Knapp, 56, will be the new group’s research director. Berry’s retirement and search for a replacement were partly what led to the merger.
Berry said the public is hungry for nonpartisan information and analysis now more than ever.
“You have a lot of deep pockets on the extremes that are funding groups that sort of have an ax to grind and an agenda to push and do it without much of a commitment to truth,” Berry said. “The difference here is to build a large, stronger, viable entity that can do something that needs to be done more often. That is good, factual, nonpartisan, independent research.”
To back up the group’s commitment to nonpartisanship, Berry and Henken referenced supportive comments from both Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who have faced off twice for governor — in 2010 and in the 2012 recall.
In a statement, Walker described a strong appreciation for both groups and said “combining the rich traditions of the two organizations can only be a positive development for the citizens of Wisconsin.”
Barrett said the forum’s work has enhanced the quality of decision-making in Milwaukee City Hall and the alliance’s work has done the same statewide. “I look forward to seeing the contributions of these respected nonpartisan organizations expand when they come together as one,” he said.
Henken said one of the driving factors in the merger is the rapidly changing way that people are consuming information. He said the merger is not happening because of financial difficulties either organization faces, though it could yield some administrative savings, similar to what both organizations have historically chided state and local governments to pursue.
“I can very proudly say that this is a situation where the leaders of both organizations saw this as an opportunity to make one and one make three,” Henken said.
The new group will maintain the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance’s focus on state and local governments as well as the Public Policy Forum’s attention on Milwaukee-area issues.
It will continue to interact with media outlets and distribute publications while not actively lobbying on issues.
The merger will allow for more in-depth studies, broader communication on state and local issues, and greater promotion of civics education, citizen engagement and increased public participation, the groups said in a statement.The new group doesn’t yet have a name because of legal issues still being worked out, Berry said. The group expects to have a name by the end of the year or shortly thereafter, Henken said.