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Steven Walters: Are state's changes about ‘local control’ or political power plays?

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Steven Walters
February 3, 2014

Hours after his fourth State of the State speech, Republican Gov. Scott Walker offered an election-year explanation for the Act 10 fight over collective bargaining that roiled the Capitol—and the state—and drew worldwide attention exactly three years ago.

The Act 10 fight was not just about breaking public-employee unions, or having public employees pay more for health care and pensions, Walker told an education summit in Milwaukee.

And, Walker added, he didn’t push Act 10 at the behest of special-interest groups.

Instead, it was purely a “local control” issue, the first-term governor insisted.

Previewing how he will try and deflect Democrats’ criticism of Act 10 before the November election, Walker said “empowering” local elected officials was more important than the money schools, local governments and state government saved by having workers pay more for benefits.

“Long term, the much greater impact than balancing budgets was putting the power back into the hands of the people duly elected to lead our school districts, our local governments and our state government,” Walker said.

“You should be the ones that make the decisions.”

For example, Act 10 “empowered” school board members, administrators and principals to focus on—instead of union grievances—student achievement, curriculum and helping staff members focus on educating children, the governor said.

Repeating a theme in his book, “Unintimidated,” Walker said lessons he learned during his eight years as Milwaukee County executive led to the push for Act 10. It says public-employee unions, except for firefighters and police officers, can bargain only for cost-of-living raises.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on a second challenge to Act 10 before it takes its summer break.

But history shows that elected state officials use the “local control” argument to justify changes they want to make. Everyone defines the term differently.

Local elected officials have been fighting governors and legislators who want to pre-empt their powers for 115 years, said Dan Thompson, a veteran of decades of Capitol wars as the executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

“It is true that Act 10 restored local control over general government employees and gave local officials more leverage over public safety unions,” Thompson said.

But, he added, “It is also true that we have lost control over other items in the last two budgets.”

Why?

“Local control erodes faster when one party controls the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature,” Thompson explained. “Local control erodes slower when power is divided in the state Capitol.”

Since 2011, Republicans have run the executive and legislative branches of state government. Democrats had that same power in 2009-10.

For more than 20 years, with only one exception, no party dominated the Capitol.

Said Thompson: “Divided political power from 1986 until 2008 made it difficult for either Democrats or Republicans … to gather enough votes to interfere with local control.”

Asked to list how Republicans have eroded local government powers over the last three years, Thompson and others offered several examples:

-- Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors: Last year, Republicans cut the powers, budget, staff and pay of Milwaukee County supervisors. Voters must approve the pay cut at a referendum this year, however.

-- Residency rules for local government workers: Republicans rewrote state law so residency cannot be a condition of employment for local government workers. The change also says police officers, firefighters and emergency responders can be required to live within 15 miles of a municipal boundary, however.

-- To control property tax bills, Walker and the Legislature have continued strict tax-levy limits on local governments. Another change requires a city to reduce its tax levy by what it collects for garbage collection, fire protection, snow plowing and street sweeping.

-- Republicans have limited the ability of local governments to regulate landlords and dictate where cellphone towers can be built.

-- Election laws: Republicans required voters to sign poll books, ended straight-ticket voting and imposed new deadlines on when absentee ballots must arrive, and be postmarked, to be counted.

Several other controversial election-law changes have passed the Assembly, said Manitowoc County Clerk Jamie Aulik.

Republicans also pushed another change, which would have dramatically limited the ability of local governments to regulate controversial sand mines. That proposal died, however.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.



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