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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Early this morning Wisconsin's assembly approved a bill that would curb the collective bargaining rights for most public sector employees. The bill now goes to the State Senate which can't vote because of a standoff. Fourteen Democrats opposed to the bill left the state so the Senate lacks a quorum. Wisconsin is one of several states where Republican governors are battling the unions representing their state workers.

This conflict has drawn increasing public attention to a pair of previously low-profile billionaires - David and Charles Koch. They give millions of dollars to groups that aggressively oppose public employees unions. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's budget bill would make civil servants pay more for pensions and benefits. And it would cripple their unions as a force in collective bargaining and politics. Walker says it's all necessary and the unions should get in line.

Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): Teachers here in the city of Madison walked off the job, which is really ultimately a strike and an illegal action.

OVERBY: Other GOP governors have joined the fight. Mitch Daniels of Indiana was on NPR's DIANE REHM SHOW this week.

Governor MITCH DANIELS (Republican, Indiana): The most powerful special interests in America today are the government unions.

OVERBY: The governors have allies in this fight - conservative groups that organize the grassroots, develop the arguments and even draft the legislation, groups that the Koch brothers often help generously. Take Americans for Prosperity. It has a Stand With Walker website and TV ad. Last week, AFP president Tim Phillips told a pro-Walker rally that America was watching them.

Mr. TIM PHILIPS (President, Americans For Prosperity): The eyes of the entire nation are on you today.

(Soundbite of cheering)

OVERBY: It was a decade ago that David and Charles Koch provided the seed money for Americans For Prosperity - and more than a million dollars overall. So David Koch sounded like a proud father at an AFP rally in 2009.

Mr. DAVID KOCH (Co-owner and Executive Vice President, Koch Industries): Five years ago, my brother Charles and I provided the funds to start the Americans for Prosperity. And it's beyond my wildest dreams how AFP has grown into this enormous organization.

OVERBY: Just last month, at the annual C-PAC conference for young conservative activists, AFP staffer Scott Hagerstrom advised grassroots organizers on spreading the message about public sector unions. He said the effort needs to get past the usual legislative fights with their split-the-difference outcomes.

Mr. SCOTT HAGERSTROM (Director, Americans For Prosperity): So we fight these battles on taxes and regulations, but really what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees, so they don't have the resources to fight these battles.

OVERBY: The public unions are among the biggest, most reliable, donors to Democrats. Not even a couple of free-spending billionaires could match their political contributions. But public records show the Kochs giving more than $17 million between 1997 and 2008 to groups involved in the campaign against unions. Among them, The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which promotes legislation targeting private-sector unions and posts videos like this one from last fall.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Woman: You're used to paying union dues. You probably don't even think about it anymore. But you should think about it.

OVERBY: Also, smaller think tanks around the Midwest and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which drafts model legislation on hot issues. This year's list of model legislation has two proposals that would put the squeeze on unions' political spending. Walker included both of them in his budget.

At the Illinois Policy Institute, which hasn't gotten Koch money, president John Tillman said the brothers just do for workers rights what unions do on the other side.

Mr. JOHN TILLMAN (Chief Executive Officer, Illinois Policy Institute): I always find it fascinating with the press's obsession with the Koch brothers.

OVERBY: He says the public unions would be under assault no matter what, because the economic downturn has sent state and local budgets into the red. And, he says, there's the political money, so much money, going from labor to the Democratic Party.

Mr. TILLMAN: That's why you see Democrats working to protect the union prerogatives and you see Republicans, on the other hand, looking for these reforms.

OVERBY: So even in a time of budget crises, it still comes down to big-money politics.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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