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?