Republicants in a class by themselves as they wreck Wisconsin's only Class One city. Classy. | WisCommunity

Republicants in a class by themselves as they wreck Wisconsin's only Class One city. Classy.

[img_assist|nid=39782|title=Milwaukee seal|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=100|height=95]Conservative bloggers have been working overtime to counter the broad and widely echoed arguments of anti-Walker forces on many of the governor's sweeping and (arguably, since they are coming so fast and with so little review) reckless changes to state law.

Sending a fat poison pill to public employee unions was only the most visible of his assaults on the current order, which was an order crafted largely in bipartisan fashion.

But an even bigger assault -- at least in terms of its potential impact -- is Walker's attempt to smash the City of Milwaukee.

I have yet to read a single counterargument from any conservative that attempts to explain why "local government is best" Republicans have decided to attack local government. Of course, they perceive themselves as helping those governments, but it's hard to see how imposing unfunded mandates they traditionally have despised is going to accomplish that.

Local governments across the state are under the Wisconsin GOP assault. Capping tax levies, cutting aids and defrocking local public employee unions are sure to damage school district budgets, county budgets, and everyone's budget. These, in Walker-speak, are "tools." Yeah, tools in the way an automatic assault rifle is a tool in the hands of a terrorist. Localities in the main don't even want these "tools" aimed in their direction.

But in the specific set of changes targeted on the City of Milwaukee, Repubilcans outdo themselves in an paradoxical assault on one of their own core principles, namely that government closer to the people is better government. Nope, now, all of a sudden, it's state government that knows best. Because, you know, we're broke and have a big fat emergency crisis on our hands. The same crisis as other governors and legislatures in the state have dealt with responsibly in the past, and without blowing everything up, but no matter.

All Wisconsin localities are going to be struggling if Walker's budget bill goes through as proposed, since he wants to cut around a billion dollars in statewide public school aids and more shared revenue for other purposes. Everyone feels the pain, but Milwaukee, being the biggest local government and one facing the most problems, would feel the most pain: Hundreds of milliions of dollars disappearing suddenly and no ability to change local revenue structures to account for the loss, except to slash spending on everything from street repairs to social services.

Other measures in Walker's "budget repair" (really, union-busting) bill plus pending legislation are targeted specifically at Class One Wisconsin cities. And there's only one of those, and it ain't Gays Mills.

Why, for instance, is Milwaukee treated as a special case in terms of its residency requirement for police and firefighters? Other state cities also maintain such requirements, and yet there is no Republican outcry that Racine or La Crosse or Green Bay should have their home-rule decisions regarding employee residency revoked.

Meanwhile, a separate GOP-sponsored bill would lift residency requirements for the more than 6,000 teachers with the Milwaukee Public Schools. Again, no similar burden placed on any other city in the state.

Even more egregiously, the first of those two bills parallels Walker's own assault on public employee unions, in that it gives license for City of Milwaukee police and firefighters to move to the suburbs, but not the rest of Milwaukee's city staff, who also fall under the local residency ordinance. So, Republicans think police and firefighters statewide should be able to keep all their current labor union rights while everyone else loses theirs, and that especially special MIlwaukee police and firefighters should be able to live where they want. Gee. Can you say "special interest," boys and girls? 

What's next? A GOP bill that destroys the entire City of Milwaukee residency ordinance? Actually, Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-SCOTT WALKER"S SUBURB), who sponsored this travesty of legislation, has already said she'd be open to expanding it to all City of Milwaukee employees. Not, however, to local pubilc employees in Durand, or Waukesha.

Vukmir and her pals insist this is a citizen-rights issue. That city employees should have the right to live where they want. Actually, they do. In Milwaukee, they can live anywhere in the nearly 100 square mile area that encompasses the city limits. If they want to live somewhere else, they can either find an employer that is not the City of Milwaukee or ask, as the city ordinance allows, for a special exemption based on personal need.

And there's huge irony in Vukmir's legislation. That's because the state Supreme Court in the past has affirmed that there is a way in which individual rights of public employees trump local residency rules. And that's (cue trumpet fanfare) union bargaining! Yes, it's true. Public employee unions can, on behalf of their members, bargain with local governments and insist on contract provisions that adjust or eliminate residency rules on the local books.

Of course, if you, like Vukmir, are a member of a political party that is busy dismantling public employee unions, then I guess you have no choice but to force an end to local public employee residency laws. If and ony if those laws were enacted by the City of Milwaukee, that is.

By Vukmir's logic, if the state can insist that local public employees be allowed to live wherever they want, why not agree  that Wisconsin corporations should be able to pay their taxes in whichever state they want? Oops, never mind. They're already down good with that.

This residency-rule usurpation won't happen without a court fight. The City of Milwaukee  notes that the ability of Wisconsin municipalities to determine their local affairs is enshrined in the state Constitution. Of course, that returns us to the ongoing problem with Walker complementarian David Prosser, the former conservative GOP legislator and state Supreme Court justice who's now up for re-election.

Here's the bottom line: Take 6,000 Milwaukee Public Schoool teachers and 7,000 Milwaukee city employees out of the local economy and the city takes an unmultiplied economic hit of up to $600 million a year. That's my rough estimate of the total annual salaries paid to all these workers. The city's taxpayers will still pay that money out, but far less of it will be recycled in the city, benefitting businesses, residents and the tax base.

It's silly, of course, to imagine that all or even most city and school workers would immediately up and move out to the 'burbs. That might be a GOP wet dream, but as it happens, there are many wonderful neighborhoods in Milwaukee and many of those workers would stay put. The point remains: The city should have a right to control its own destiny. But the GOP seems to think home rule is not as good as hun rule.

In any event, hundreds of millions of dollars have already been suctioned from Milwaukee through the school voucher program, which forces a transfer of local property tax dollars to private ventures without compensation. Now it looks like Republicans are angling to make the total vacuuming of Milwaukee revenues closer to a cool billion. Yeah, that'll surely help Milwaukee fix its problems.

It's strange, by the way, that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has editorialized in favor of the plan to end Milwaukee residency rules, hasn't gotten out its corporate pocket calculator and actually considered the eventual economic impact threatening the city and, ahem, a large share of its own revenues. I guess it comes down to: If big-shot newspaper editors can live in Brookfield, why not Milwaukee cops? Just no low-income folks, thank you.

It's almost as if Republicans -- and Republican-leaning newspapers -- see Milwaukee not only as a distasteful Democratic stronghold, but as the one local government in all of the state that is dysfunctional and in need of outside guidance -- actually, that would be less outside money and more outside guidance. Or, as Gov. Tommy Thompson put it when he was lobbying upstate to impose a special sales tax on metro Milwaukee to pay for Miller Park (to which no one from outside metro Milwaukee ever, ever treks), "Stick it to 'em!"

Walker's union-busting bill was, as TV pundit Rachel Maddow often notes, not about fixing the state budget. It was about shifting political power. The GOP-led assaults specific to Milwaukee are, however, about money and powermongering. By keeping money from the city, the Walkerites have more for their own purposes while denying support to what they perceive as a relatively union-friendly, opposition-heavy population center -- sort of a domestic Chechyna. A place where voters pass ever-so radical and undemocratic referenda like mandated sick days for all private workers. Why, Milwaukee's practically socialist! Gotta nip that in the bud, so shut off the cash before anyone else goes similarly subversive.

Of course, in dissing Milwaukee, Republicans are slaughtering Wisconsin's golden goose. I once wrote a speech for former Mayor John Norquist in which this line became an anthem: "Wisconsin without Milwaukee would be Iowa." Actually, now, it would be even less than Iowa, because while Milwaukee would be stripped of resources and find its role as the state's top economic engine seriously constrained, it would still have all its current problems, and more. Thus, sooner or later the rest of the state would have to deal with those problems, without Milwaukee's own financial help, enfeebled as it would be by further outsourcing of its intellectual and physical assets.

As Mayor Tom Barrett said recently, the Wisconsin GOP fetish for meddling in Milwaukee's affairs threatens to turn it into the next Detroit. Of course, the Republicans don't seem to mind that. Coincidentally, in Michigan, the Republican governor has given himself the power to appoint a special master to disband local governments and run localities by decree in the event of supposed fiscal or other "emergencies." Scott Walker does not appear to be a politician who likes having his conservative extremes trumped by any of his colleagues. So watch out, Milwaukee. You might just have to secede from the state if you're going to survive.

[SPECIAL NOTE: The late Dakota James actually foresaw this political eventuality in a pair of satirical science-fiction novels he wrote in the '80s: "Greenhouse" and "Milwaukee the Beautiful." As James, a Wisconsin author, wrote  it: When the state's politics become ever more dysfunctional and threatening, the city simply and literally walls itself off and forms a city-state that governs itself without any outside interference. And immediately does a lot better. The books are out of print, but check around on the web and you'll be in for an eye-opener of a read.]


March 24, 2011 - 11:55am