Wisconsin lawmakers propose Iran business prohibition

Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Sen. Leah Vukmir have introduced a bill that would prohibit Wisconsin from investing in companies that do business in or with Iran.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Wisconsin Democratic Senator, Lena Taylor returned to Wisconsin with the 13 other Democratic Senators to address a crowd gathered at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin on Saturday, March 12, 2011. Republican legislators have introduced a bill that would prohibit the state from investing in companies that do business in or with Iran, saying the measure would help blunt President Barack Obama's nuclear accord with that country.

Republican legislators have introduced a bill that would prohibit the state from investing in companies that do business in or with Iran, saying the measure would help blunt President Barack Obama's nuclear accord with that country.

Under the proposal from Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Sen. Leah Vukmir, the state investment board could not put money into any company that owes money to Iran's government, maintains property, personnel or operations in Iran, contracts with the Iranian government or contracts with any company owned or controlled by Iranian officials.

The board also would be prohibited from investing in companies that provide goods or services in Iran or sell anything knowing those products will be resold to the Iranian government, companies controlled by the Iranian government or otherwise redistributed in that country. The board would have one year to sell off present holdings that violate the prohibition.

Vukmir, of Wauwatosa, and Kooyenga, from Brookfield, wrote in a memo to lawmakers last week seeking co-sponsors that the bill is a response to Obama's deal with Iran.

The accord calls for Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions, which would open the door for companies to step up operations in that country. Republicans strongly oppose the deal, arguing the Iranian government can't be trusted. The legislators said their bill will help limit the accord's effects.

"In the absence of true leadership in Washington, this action is the least we can do," they wrote.

Kooyenga, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, added in a telephone interview he hopes the bill will help limit funds for Iran's weapons programs and ensure western technology doesn't find its way into that country.

"Maybe smaller and mid-size companies would have to think twice about doing business with Iran (if the bill passes)," he said.

More than 1,000 corporations around the world do business in or with Iran, according to a database kept by United Against Nuclear Iran, a nonprofit group working to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. About two dozen states have adopted legislation barring public entities from renewing or entering into contracts with companies operating in Iran or requiring them to divest themselves of holdings in such companies, according to UANI.

The Wisconsin investment board invests about $98.5 billion in companies around the world, using the vast majority of returns to pay state employees' retirement benefits. Vicki Hearing, a spokeswoman for the board, said she didn't have a comprehensive list of companies the board invests in that operate in or with Iran.

If the bill passes, she said, the board likely would have to contract with a consulting firm called Conflict Securities Advisory Group, which specializes in assessing global security risk for investors, to identify the companies and monitor when they start or end operations in Iran. She didn't know how much that might cost.

She warned that eliminating companies as potential investment partners would shrink the board's options. What's more, she said, the board's responsible for making the most prudent investments possible to keep the retirement fund viable, not using investments to make a statement.

"We don't make a decision to invest based on a social issue," Hearing said.

The Wisconsin bill's chances are unclear. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn't respond to an email seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said she hadn't had a chance to discuss the bill with him.

Even if the bill wins leadership's support it can't come to the floor in either the Senate or Assembly until next year. The Legislature ends its fall session with an Assembly floor period on Monday and the calendar for that day doesn't include the measure.

Spokespeople for Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling declined comment. A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, a member of the House trade subcommittee who supports the Iran accord, declined comment, saying her office doesn't comment on state legislation.

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