GOP-Controlled Wisconsin Legislature Targets Milwaukee

Recent moves by the republican-controlled legislature that could hurt the city's finances has raised speculation that it being targeted as part of a political vendetta.
by | May 13, 2013

By Don Walker

Even before such hot topics as residency and a proposed streetcar came before the Republican-dominated Legislature's Joint Finance Committee last week, one City Hall partisan was preparing for the worst.

"We're calling it Screw Milwaukee Day," the official said.

The actions by the committee, the Legislature's powerful budget-writing panel, not only proved to be a disastrous defeat for Mayor Tom Barrett's administration, they were a reminder of the divide -- philosophically and politically -- between the state's largest and most important city and the Republican leadership in Madison.

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It's an old story in many ways. There have been sewer wars between city and suburbs; the bruising debate over the financing and construction of Miller Park; the back-and-forth rhetoric between Barrett and Gov. Scott Walker in last year's recall election over what is best for Milwaukee; and, more recently, the fight with the state over whether to use mortgage fraud settlement money to pay to demolish hundreds of abandoned homes.

Last week, action by the budget panel would cast aside a 75-year-old ordinance on residency rules for local units of government, altering it to allow police and firefighters to live up to 15 miles outside the city limits of any community in the state. While the measure still must pass both houses of the Legislature and be signed into law by Walker, Republicans have the votes, and Milwaukee's police and fire unions, which supported the governor in his election, are on the verge of a major victory.

At the same time, one of Barrett's major initiatives -- a proposed streetcar he believes will be a major economic development project but which opponents label a boondoggle -- also hit a major obstacle that was inserted into the budget by Joint Finance. Republicans on the committee hope to kill the project by requiring that the cost of moving utility lines for the streetcar fall to the city and not the utilities themselves and their ratepayers.

The events left Barrett angry, particularly on residency ("It makes my head explode."). And he vowed to move forward, talking to legislators and looking to "see if anybody is interested in helping us."

"This is a great city and Governor Walker and his allies have spent countless dollars to run down the city," Barrett said.

But with an outnumbered and weakened Milwaukee delegation that has little influence, it will be an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

"I question how much they value Milwaukee," Common Council President Willie Hines said of the GOP lawmakers.

Marquette University political science professor John McAdams says the divide is about the use of political power forged through ideology rather than regional differences.

"Republicans in the Legislature are doing Republican things that are hostile to Democratic things," he said, citing the example of conservatives who have no use for high-speed trains to Madison or streetcars.

Ald. Michael Murphy witnessed how the new order works last March. After Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) suggested Milwaukee needed to save more money and become more efficient, Murphy reached out to Vos.

Murphy, joined by city Budget Director Mark Nicolini, had a cordial meeting with Vos in Madison as they pored over the city's numbers and benchmarks that Murphy said showed the financial challenges facing Milwaukee.

"The speaker said most of his colleagues wouldn't believe a word we said," Murphy recalled.

Vos, who confirmed the details of the meeting, said he loved Milwaukee but told Murphy and Nicolini not to ask for any money.

"Which was OK," Murphy said. "But I said, 'Just don't hurt us.' "

What rankles Barrett the most over the residency battle is Act 10, the historic and controversial law Walker signed that all but eliminated collective bargaining for most public-sector employees, except for police and fire unions.

Barrett said Republicans went against the principles of that law because it called for collective bargaining with unions such as the Milwaukee Police Association, Local 215 of the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters and the Milwaukee Police Supervisors' Organization.

In Barrett's view, Republicans in Madison should have held true to their beliefs and allowed the city and the unions to get politics out of bargaining and get back to the table. Now Barrett is facing the loss of residency, and taxpayers could be paying for lucrative pensions for police officers and firefighters who may not be living in Milwaukee and contributing to those pensions through property taxes.

As Joint Finance met Thursday, Vos called Barrett in an effort to forge an agreement with the committee, including the possibility of wage concessions from the unions in return for ending the residency rule.

Barrett was not interested, asking Vos and others why he was suddenly negotiating with Republicans and not union negotiators representing police officers, their supervisors and firefighters, as Act 10 calls for.

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), the co-chair of Joint Finance who represents a piece of Milwaukee, said Republican legislators were only doing what she said Barrett wasn't doing on his own: providing leadership.

"We have a problem with the mayor," Darling said of the residency debate. "He should have addressed this. He sent the unions to Madison and we took care of it."

Patrick Curley, the mayor's chief of staff, called Darling a "cheap-shot artist," noting that the city's top labor negotiator had told the unions the city was ready to talk about residency. Union negotiators said the move came too late.

With residency on death row, Barrett reached out to supporters in the business community, arguing that the prospect of city employees leaving the city limits will ultimately hit businesses in the pocketbook. Recently, he spelled out the implications to members of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

As the city's foreclosure crisis has decimated many neighborhoods, the burden of the property tax levy has begun to swing away from residents and more toward commercial and manufacturing interests. The city has seen a $5 billion loss in valuation since the housing crisis began in 2008.

Barrett says that burden will only grow without residency rules.

Sheldon Lubar, a prominent Milwaukee businessman and philanthropist, agrees with the mayor. Last month, he sent a letter to every state legislator.

Lubar asked them to take the fight over residency rules out of Walker's budget and let local officials decide the issue. But Lubar also pointed out what could happen to businesses if residency rules ended.

"If changes are made to the residency requirement for local government employees, the relative value between residential and commercial/manufacturing is likely to continue this shift," he wrote. "Careful attention should be given to the unintended consequences for businesses in Milwaukee of changes to residency requirements."

What's notable is not that Lubar was asking for consideration of an issue of importance to the community. What bothered Lubar was something else.

"I got zero feedback. I think that's somewhat inexcusable," he said.

Pedro Colon, a former Democratic state legislator from the south side and now a circuit judge in Milwaukee County, says legislative redistricting removed the middle ground in partisan politics. It also had the effect of giving some Republican legislators new districts that included pieces of Milwaukee.

"A lot of legislators misunderstand Milwaukee," Colon said. "There is a distance there that is not understood. We are doing business in a more partisan way. And all of the interests understand that."

Murphy, the alderman, says there is something more at play.

"I think one can't escape the personal nature of the politics between Scott Walker and Tom Barrett," Murphy said. "That plays a role in this. And, unfortunately, it's the taxpayers of the city who will be hurt."

Walker defeated Barrett twice: last June in the recall election; and in 2010 in the race for governor.

Rich Meeusen, the president and CEO of Badger Meter and a businessman working to establish Milwaukee as a water technology center, says it may be time to move on.

"The mayor's battle may be lost on residency," Meeusen said, though he added that he agreed with the mayor on the potential impact on business. "Madison has made its decision. I think it behooves the mayor and all of us to focus on what we need to do to make the city of Milwaukee the kind of place where the residents want to stay and bring in more people."

Former Mayor John Norquist said he's seen it all before. He blames Republicans now for the political divide, the us vs. them mentality. And the new battles, he said, are unfortunate.

"But over time, Wisconsin needs Milwaukee more than Milwaukee needs Wisconsin. Without Milwaukee, Wisconsin is basically Iowa," he said.

(c)2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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