County Lobbyists Asleep on the Job?
They should be working to get more state funding. But they’re too busy protecting the county board.
This is a critical time for Milwaukee County’s lobbyists. The most important lobbying they do is for state funding, as changes in this have a huge impact on the county budget — and Milwaukee taxpayers. And that lobbying largely happens every other year, when the governor presents his biennial budget and the legislature amends it and passes the revised bill into law.
“This should be the busiest time of the year,” says Brendan Conway, a spokesperson for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. “Two years ago, Milwaukee got a $28 million cut in state aid. At the very least they should be lobbying to get that money back.”
Last time around the state cut aid that helps fund the county transit system. A state task force has recommended restoring this aid, but there’s no guarantee the governor or legislature will go along with this.
Then there is state funding for the county courts, for mental health and child support programs at the county. Because of state funding cuts, the county lost 26 Child Support Services positions, Conway notes. So are the county’s lobbyists on top of all these issues?
“I can only hope they are lobbying on that but I have no way to know,” says Supervisor Deanna Alexander, vice-chair of the county board’s Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. Alexander says the committee’s monthly meeting scheduled for February 1 was cancelled, so she had no opportunity to question the county’s lobbyists about this.
AIexander says she talked to Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, the committee chair, and “I questioned why, with the meeting being so close to the budget address by the governor, why we wouldn’t have an update regarding that. I was told it was because no one is making any commitments ahead of time on the budget, and we probably wouldn’t know more until June.”
June? That would be more than three months after Gov. Scott Walker introduces his budget.
In an email to me, Lipscomb offered a different take, saying that while the biennial budget session is the busiest time for county lobbyists, “the Governor has not introduced his budget, which is the formal kickoff of that process.”
But Milwaukee County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic says the lobbyists are actually quite busy now. “Our Intergovernmental Relations staff is busy communicating with state legislators on our Milwaukee County legislative priorities, which the board and county executive support.”
But Conway says he’s heard from legislators that the county’s lobbyists have been spending all their time lobbying in opposition to the bill by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo to downsize the county board. One Capitol insider who knows the county lobbyists says “I would say that’s their top priority, defeating the effort to downsize the board.”
In an email exchange with Dimitrijevic I asked her “how much of county lobbyists’ time has been spent lobbying against idea of downsizing the board?” She declined to answer.
It’s worth noting that Sanfelippo’s original bill called for the legislature to approve a county referendum on whether the board should be reduced to part-time status. “Milwaukee County taxpayers were paying for county lobbyists’ efforts to prevent voters from getting a chance to vote on this,” Sanfelippo marvels.
When I began my reporting on January 28, I checked the records of the state Government Accountability Board, with which lobbyists have to register and note any issues they are working on. Milwaukee County’s lobbyists had registered to lobby generally on the biennial budget and specifically on the issues of mass transit and limiting the salary of county boards. That’s it.
But on January 29, the day I contacted Lipscomb and Dimitrijevic with my questions, the county’s lobbyists suddenly signed up to lobby on 30 more issues including everything from issues like disabilities services to Guardian ad Litem costs to Youth Aids and Circuit Court funding and Behavioral Health Funding.
By contrast, the City of Milwaukee’s lobbyists have been working on lobbying the Walker administration on a long list of items since last summer.
Still, since there is now such a huge number of issues the county’s lobbyists are getting involved in, you might wonder anew why the February 1 Intergovernmental Relations committee meeting was cancelled. The committee might have discussed the strategy to be pursued on any of these 30 issues.
Alexander believes that a key reason the committee meeting was cancelled was so lobbyists couldn’t be questioned as to what they have been working on. “I don’t know if that was the primary driver of the decision, but I certainly think it was a factor. I had asked Lipscomb what lobbying was being done on the Sanfelippo bill.”
Now that question won’t have to be answered.
Dimitrjevic insists the decision to cancel the committee meeting was made by Lipscomb. But the board chair handles the hiring and firing of the county lobbyists, and Dimimtrijevic also is a member of the IGR committee. (In fact, it’s the only committee she sits on.) And Lipscomb appears to be a key ally of the board chair on a range of issues.
Dimitrijevic, moreover, has been very aggressive in how she controls the activities of other board members as a recent story by Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice has reported.
In short, I think it’s a safe bet the board chair was consulted by Lipscomb when he decided to cancel the IGR committee meeting.
Correction: An early version of this column mistakenly stated the state cut the county by $26 million and cut 28 child support workers; corrected figures are a $28 million budget cut and loss of 26 child support workers.
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