Tag Archives: state government

Wis. Republicans hand over local control to corporate America

There’s a theory in politics — subsidiarity — that maintains higher levels of government should handle only tasks that cannot be accomplished at lower levels. National defense is a good example of how that theory works; it’s not left to each state or city to defend itself.

In that spirit, the Republican Party’s stated goal is to reduce the power and scope of the federal government. State government, their argument goes, is more democratic and accountable than Washington. State officials have a deeper understanding of the unique challenges, values and goals of their constituents. And in turn, local office-holders have a deeper understanding of their own constituents than does the state.

It’s not an unreasonable position, until you start to distort it beyond recognition. And that’s exactly what Wisconsin Republicans have done.

First, to show their disdain for the feds, Wisconsin Republicans made a great show of turning down federal funds after capturing control of state government in 2011. Showily flexing his ideological bicep, Gov. Scott Walker turned down about $2 billion for Medicare expansion, high-speed rail development, and high-speed internet expansion in the state. It didn’t seem to bother him or his GOP colleagues that a portion of that money would originally came from Wisconsin taxpayers. Nor did it seem to concern them that the move cost the state thousands of jobs, as well as expanded health care and an improved business environment. Wisconsin now has the second-highest insurance rates in the nation.

In short, your representatives at the state level cut off your nose to spite Washington’s face — all in the name of local empowerment.

Yet, in a glaring philosophical disconnect, Wisconsin’s Republican leaders also believe — in the strongest way possible — that the virtues of local control come to a screeching halt at the doors of the state Capitol. Ever since they’ve commanded the state, Republicans have engaged in an unprecedented usurpation of municipal, village and other local government bodies’ powers in order to stop them from interfering with the moneyed interests that feather their nests.

A memo issued earlier this year by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau detailed more than 100 ways in which the Republican Legislature and the governor have eliminated local control while also increasing the number of unfunded mandates — i.e., costs — passed on to local communities. The Republicans’ actions have made it impossible for many local elected officials to balance their budgets while providing services for their constituents. That’s one of the reasons your potholes don’t get filled.

Just a few weeks ago, in his latest assault at local control, Walker signed a law taking away the power of local jurisdictions to protect their water. The Republican-backed law forbids municipalities from stopping property owners who want to develop land or transfer properties to erect projects that could harm local water supplies. According to the new law, in legal cases where property owners are at odds with local ordinances protecting natural resources, presiding judges must rule in favor of the property owners over the good of nearly everyone else.

That law was part of what the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters calls a “developers’ grab bag,” which along with a comparable “polluters’ grab bag,” has given polluting industries and land developers free rein over the state’s natural resources by granting them authority over local governments.

Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has done his part to support this campaign, which makes corporations not just people but Super People. In mid-May, he ruled that environmental officials at the Department of Natural Resources cannot make decisions about high-capacity wells in order to prevent damage to local water supplies — not if Big Ag disagrees with those decisions. Schimel’s ruling puts the state’s groundwater, lakes and streams in jeopardy.

It’s not only environmental authority that the state’s GOP leaders have usurped. In the past legislative session, Republican changes included disrupting Wisconsin’s popular and cost-effective system of delivering services to seniors and those with disabilities. The party opted instead to turn those services over to for-profit companies. Republicans are also interfering with local school board elections.

By electing a solid Republican majority, voters in the state have empowered their own disempowerment while making very rich strangers even richer.

How’s that for subsidiarity?

Koch-backed ALEC infiltrates local governments

The organization that delivered stand-your-ground bills and suppress-the-vote measures to statehouses around the country is now following that old phrase: Think globally, act locally. 

The American Legislative Exchange Council is taking an interest in local governments, which troubles the progressives who demonstrated for days outside the ALEC’s annual conference in Dallas earlier this summer. “You know the ‘think global, act local’ saying? It’s OK when it applies to picking up trash. It’s scary when it applies to companies and the conservative lawmakers they own,” said Paul Reynolds, who protested with an Occupy-style group.

ALEC national chair Linda Upmeyer, Iowa’s majority leader, welcomed those attending the conference to develop policies. “Every year, we look forward to this meeting as an opportunity to hear new ideas and expand our understanding of limited government, free markets and federalism,” she said.

Over the course of three days, conference attendees attended training sessions and heard from Koch-backed elected officials.

ALEC, which is mostly funded with corporate money or corporate foundation money, is not a new organization, and it is not newly dangerous to progressive causes. But ALEC has relatively newfound infamy, in large part because it drafted model bills for some of the most conservative and controversial measures passed in U.S. statehouses in recent years. Those measures broadened self-defense laws, rolled back collective bargaining rights and provided clearance for racial profiling by police.

Now an offshoot of ALEC, the American City County Exchange, has formed to promote conservative corporate interests at the local level. ACCE arrived a time when municipalities are adopting progressive policies to raise the minimum wage, guarantee sick leave for workers, institute new environmental protections, push to overturn Citizens United, form health coops, refuse federal demands to incarcerate undocumented immigrants and advance marriage equality.

Some predict ACCE will operate in concert with Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed group that invested this year in the school board election in Kenosha and the board of supervisors election in Iron County.

ACCE’s first meeting coincided with ALEC’s conference. One workshop topic was “releasing local governments from the grip of collective bargaining.”

The conference also brought an announcement that the National Federation of Independent Business — a group that has received millions from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, Koch brother entities and other right-wing funders — joined the ALEC board. The Center for Media and Democracy said the NFIB is a front group with big-business interests that claims to represents small businesses.

Pot hole pain: Street repairs jeopardized by fuzzy political road-building math

The most vicious winter in decades has left urban streets in Wisconsin so scarred with potholes that some look like they belong in developing nations.

“Once you get off the highways, it’s like you’re in Somalia or somewhere — it’s just crazy,” says Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. His Madison-based organization promotes land use and transportation policies that benefit the state’s economic, environmental and cultural health.

Neglected potholes in Milwaukee also are dragging down the state’s economic future, says Ald. Tony Zielinski, who represents the 14th District.

“The bad roads put Milwaukee at an economic disadvantage when it comes to competing for new businesses,” Zielinski said. “The state is not giving us adequate money to deal with this problem, and Milwaukee is the state’s economic engine. So having a poor infrastructure here hurts all of Wisconsin.”

Hiniker and other “smart-growth” supporters say the potholes also contribute to fatal accidents and wreak havoc on vehicles — blowing out tires, bending wheel rims, throwing out alignments and devastating shock-absorption systems.

But in addition to creating danger and damage, potholes represent government mismanagement of public funds for political purposes at its worst, according to a growing chorus of critics.

Hiniker jokes that the state’s road builders are the best-financed unit of state government. 

Danger and graft

Last year, TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches surface transportation issues, released a report estimating that “unacceptably rough” roads cost a total of $80 billion nationwide, with the average urban driver faced with $377 a year in repairs.

This year’s toll will likely be much higher in urban areas of Wisconsin.

A Milwaukee call center that takes public requests for pothole repairs got 3,680 reports Jan. 1 – March 20 this year. That compares with 2,695 from Jan. 2 to March 20 of last year — a 27-percent increase.

Unfortunately, there’s not much Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can do about the pothole menace. When it comes to paying for road repairs, the state is stingy and has policies that limit the ability of local  officials to address infrastructure problems.

Smart-growth advocates say that Wisconsin and most other state governments overwhelmingly favor new construction over road maintenance, because builders  funnel more cash back into elected officials’ coffers — an assertion that the numbers seem to bear out.

Last year Gov. Scott Walker allocated $3.3 billion in transportation spending, and the lion’s share of it went toward expanding highways, some of which actually have declining traffic, and building new highways where there’s not nearly enough use to justify them, Hiniker said.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee and other urban areas of Wisconsin got the fuzzy end of the funding lollipop. Milwaukee wound up with only $2.4 million for street repairs last year, and while this year the reimbursements might rise by up to 4 percent, it’s not enough to address the magnitude of the problem, according to analysts.

But Hiniker and others stress that Walker and his fellow Republicans can’t be singled out to shoulder the blame for the situation. Misuse of transportation funds to favor road builders is a bipartisan scam — essentially a legal form of graft that’s equally exploited by both Democrats and Republicans, they say.

Fuzzy math and secret gifts

The only way that Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can get more funding for road repairs is by increasing property taxes. But politics and the state’s lagging economy make that option a non-starter. Instead, cities are stuck with choosing between filling in van-eating sinkholes and maintaining an adequate fire department, according to city halls across the state.

Drivers assume that the various automobile fees and taxes they pay at the pump cover the cost of local road repairs. But by the time that money winds its way through the labyrinthine process of transportation funding, there’s very little left for the neighborhood pothole that nearly killed you.

Hiniker says it’s time for taxpayers to wake up and smell the tar.

As Hiniker tells the story, sometime during the 1980s local municipalities asked the Legislature for permission to raise money to pay for road resurfacing and other such infrastructure repairs. But lawmakers at the time said no, instead promising to reimburse cities and towns for 85 percent of such incurred costs from the state’s segregated Transportation Fund. 

The percentage of reimbursement has steadily declined over the past decade. Now it’s only about 12 percent, Hiniker estimates. It’s hard to tease out the actual number, because the Wisconsin Department of Transportation categorizes work involved in many new construction projects as repairs, even if the “repairs” are made to roads already in good condition.

For instance, the expansion of I-94 from Milwaukee to Kenosha cost $2.2 billion, but only $200 million of that was classified as new construction. All the rest of the cost fell into the category of repair and maintenance.

That’s not the only situation in which transportation-funding math gets fuzzy. Dennis Yaccarino, a budget analyst for the City of Milwaukee, says WisDOT claims to have increased the amount of shared revenue given to municipalities for road repairs. It has, but in a way that fails to benefit cities such as Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.The forumula used is almost impenetrably complicated and gives sprawling rural areas an advantage over heavily trafficked urban locations.

The math goes from fuzzy to utterly opaque when it comes to figuring out how much the state’s two dozen or so road builders give to lawmakers in each election cycle. That’s partly due to new rules that allow for unlimited anonymous donations to third-party campaign activity and partly due to the time-honored practices of bundling donations or making them under the names of friends or family members.

Down the road

Walker’s current state biennial budget contains so many new highway projects that the state would have to borrow about $993 million to pay for them all. Walker has justified piling on the future debt by touting all the construction jobs that the new projects would generate — a position that puts him at odds with himself.

In the past, Walker ruled out using public works to create jobs, implying that they represent a kind of socialism that stymies the free-enterprise system. He’s also opposed projects that burden the future with costs, such as health care expansion. In fact, he cited both objections in one of the most controversial decisions he’s made as governor — killing an inked deal to implement a high-speed rail system from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to Minneapolis. 

Along with that move, Walker turned down more than $800 million in federal funds, as well as all the jobs and economic activity the project would have generated. He also ensured more strain on state highways — strain that could have been avoided if people had another way to travel those heavily trafficked corridors. In fact, polls increasingly show that people, especially young people, prefer alternative travel options over driving.

Ironically, Walker said at the time that maintaining the trains would burden future taxpayers with debt. But, as Hiniker points out, that’s exactly what the governor’s new highway-building projects do. He’s budgeted insufficiently for future repairs, but certainly they will have to be made on every mile of highway that he builds, according to Hiniker.

So, in addition to the debt Walker will incur by borrowing money to pay for highways that experts say are largely unneeded, he’s adding to future budgetary woes.

For more

Visit Wisconsin Highway Waste on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/highwaywastewisconsin?fref=ts

Also read Jim Rowen’s blog about wasteful highway spending:  http://thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com/2014/03/fix-potholes-wisconsin-pols-buying-more.html?m=1