Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Gary George’s Plot to Kill the Comptroller

By - Jun 21st, 2001 04:40 am

State budget deliberations are a time for mischief making, and state Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee) has always had a reputation for quietly slipping pet proposals into this biennial document. But even by George’s standards, he has produced a bumper crop of stealth legislation.

“This is one of the dumbest things I’ve heard of in a long time,” says Ald. Tom Nardelli.

George has thrown in proposals to fund a new research park in Milwaukee, to replace the Bradley Center and Wisconsin Center District with one merged entity, and to elect Milwaukee Circuit Court judges by neighborhood districts rather than county-wide. But the corker is his proposal to make the Milwaukee comptroller an appointed rather than elected position.

This is no small change. The comptroller has been an elected officer in Milwaukee since 1853, and provides “independent advice to the common council,” Comptroller Wally Morics notes. If the position was appointed by the mayor, as George proposes, “The comptroller would have to say what the mayor wants, or he’d be fired and the next one would,” Morics says.

In short, the chief beneficiary of any plan to kill an elected comptroller would be Mayor John Norquist. But Norquist’s office has released a memo opposing the measure and promised “efforts to do everything we can to ensure it is defeated.”

As for common council members, Ald. Michael Murphy says he has yet to talk to any alderman who supports the idea. As Ald. Jeff Pawlinski notes, “You need an independent voice in that office. You don’t want someone beholden to the mayor.”

So where did George get the idea to kill the comptroller? “This was promoted by [Ald. Marvin] Pratt and [Ald. Fred] Gordon,” says one city insider. “The idea is that if Pratt were elected mayor [in 2004], he would appoint Gordon comptroller.”

“For those who encouraged George and for George to do it, I think this is one of the dumbest things I’ve heard of in a long time,” says Ald. Tom Nardelli. “It’s a stupid idea coming from a guy who wants to be governor of the state and should know better.”

Pratt and Gordon did not answer my calls for comments. So I asked George’s aide Dave Begel whether the two aldermen asked George for the legislation. “I know nothing about it,” Begel says. “I tend to stay out of city politics.”

Begel says he sees nothing wrong with how the comptroller has operated to date. So if there’s no problem, why does it need fixing? “It’s strictly a structural thing and it wouldn’t affect this comptroller anyway,” Begel says. “It doesn’t go into effect until the next election.”

Comptroller Wally Morics calls it “stealth legislation…stuck into the budget at the 11th hour.”

But wouldn’t that mean Morics couldn’t run for office in 2004? “It would affect anyone who wanted to run for the position,” Begel says.

George says his proposal is simply intended as a good government measure. “This position is better appointed than elected. I sponsored the mayor’s original plan [in 1988] to create a cabinet form of government.”

But in this case, the mayor opposes the plan. Morics is one of many who find the whole thing suspicious: “It seems to be stealth legislation. Why is one city office a matter of state concern that gets stuck into the budget at the 11th hour? Maybe this is something that is best left to the city government to decide. What does this have to do with the state budget?”

James McCann, who preceded Morics in the office and served for more than a decade, decries any attempt to make the position appointed. “The comptroller has a unique function, including estimating revenues for the city budget,” he says. Without that independent voice, he says, it’s tempting for a mayor to fudge the numbers and overestimate revenues in order to avoid a tax increase. “That’s what gets local governments without an independent financial officer into trouble.”

Morics said he could think of no reason why Pratt and Gordon would want to replace him as comptroller. “If they had any issues with me, I’d be very surprised. My relations with them are downright cordial and friendly.”

All of George’s proposals have been added to the Senate Democrats’ budget document, which will eventually be negotiated with Assembly Republicans, who are likely to stick closer to the original budget prepared by the Joint Finance Committee. George’s proposal to elect judges by neighborhood is doubtless intended to increase the number of minority judges in Milwaukee. His plan for a research park has gotten support from the Milwaukee business community, notably the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. George says the Greater Milwaukee Committee also favors the idea.

Both organizations also back a plan to combine the Wisconsin Center District with the Bradley Center, so that the Wisconsin Center’s tax revenue can be used to subsidize improvements at the Bradley Center. This renovation, in turn, is intended to generate more revenue for the Milwaukee Bucks. Begel says George worked closely with the GMC and MMAC on both plans.

Suspicious minds might wonder if George agreed to sponsor the Bradley Center plan in exchange for support of his research park. But your correspondent only reports the facts as he knows them. Begel says the GMC and MMAC were among a range of groups who supported the merger plan. “They asked for this and we are working with them on this,” he says.

Added note: Ninety minutes after this article was posted, Common Council President Marvin Pratt called to say that he expected the council to pass a resolution opposing the proposal to make the comptroller a mayoral appointment. Pratt predicted the resolution would pass unanimously.

Final postscript: Ald.Gordon called and confirmed that he had recommended the proposal for an appointed comptroller to state Sen. George, and that George had talked to Pratt as well about the idea. “I was thinking of a scenario where Pratt would be mayor,” Gordon says, adding that he wouldn’t want to give Norquist that appointment power. Gordon also says he is not interested in being appointed comptroller. Gordon predicts a majority of council members will vote against his idea.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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