The Decline of Local Control
Republicans favor local control. So why are they passing so many laws ending it?
The last budget session was a dandy one for AT&T and other wireless phone providers. Lobbyists for these companies had pushed for legislation in countless states to end any local control over the installation of cell phone towers, with mixed success.
But no state was more receptive to these lobbyists than Wisconsin, where Republican legislators on the Joint Finance Committee grabbed the bill as written by telecomm lobbyists, plunked it into the budget bill and sent it on to the full legislature, which passed it.
“They (Joint Finance) did it on a day when they they threw a whole slew of things into the budget,” recalls Jennifer Gonda, a lobbyist for the city of Milwaukee. “It was like special interest Christmas Day.”
The legislation prevents local governments from passing any regulations to limit the height or ugliness of a tower, allows telecom companies to plop the towers right on the edge of a homeowner’s lot line, and will reduce revenue for local governments who previously required wireless companies to use municipal property for antennas and towers.
Were there any sound policy reasons for this change? We’ll never know since the legislature held no public hearings on the law. That’s the usual way to weigh the interests of business against local governments, and come up with the best solution.
But this legislature has shown, time and again, that it will roll over for special interests even if means limiting the powers of local government. As a legislative analysis published by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities put it, the budget bill passed this year “reflects a lack of understanding or recognition of the key role municipalities play in job creation and the state’s economic recovery, and at worse, represents a calculated attack on home rule.”
The list of legislation limiting local governmental power is far too long to encompass in just one column, but here are some highlights of laws passed:
-Ending residency requirements for public employees by local governments;
-Restricting the ability of local governments, even completely urbanized areas like Milwaukee, from regulating bow hunting within their boundaries;
-Doing away with a paid sick leave ordinance requiring Milwaukee businesses to provide minimum sick days to employees that local voters had overwhelmingly approved in a referendum;
-Restricting the ability of municipalities to regulate landlords who own rental properties;
-Exempting biogas and synthetic gas energy systems from property taxes;
-Preventing all local governments from requiring a utility to pay to move its infrastructure to accommodate public transit (though local governments can still do this when building or changing roads);
-Requiring local governments who assess user fees for services like street sweeping, garbage collection, fire protection, etc. to lower property taxes by exactly the same amount;
-Exempting property used to age cheese from property taxes;
-Prohibiting local governments from regulating real estate brokers;
-Barring local governments from enacting ordinances restricting the sale of food or nonalcoholic beverages based on the number of calories, portion size or other nutritional criteria;
-Preventing local governments from taking location into account when assessing the property value of billboards.
This last-mentioned law means that a billboard on the Marquette Interchange, which gets more exposure to people than probably any location in the state, will have the same property value as a billboard on the least traveled street in the city. It’s particularly devastating to a high-density city like Milwaukee, where billboards are likely to have more value. The law has reduced annual assessments by $70 million, city officials say, increasing profits for billboard companies at the expense of residential taxpayers.
Ending the residency requirement, as I’ve previously written, could result in the city losing a huge chunk of its middle class and driving down home values and the property tax base. And the law preventing Milwaukee from requiring a public utility to pay to move infrastructure for a streetcar could hurt the city’s economy. The decision that utilities can only be charged to move infrastructure for road improvements is an ideological one that privileges cars over public transit and hampers the state’s biggest tourism destination from creating an amenity it believes will boost its economy.
“There has been an obsession with the city of Milwaukee” in the laws restricting local governments, says Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.
The latest example is the bill that would restrict the ability of the city of Milwaukee to make the best decisions regarding the sale of school buildings. Gonda, however, says the city is having some success getting legislators to consider compromises in the proposed legislation.
It should be noted that all state legislatures, whichever party is in control, end up passing laws that can restrain local governments. It’s been happening since the 1920s, Witynski notes, when the original legislation granting local governments sweeping authorities was passed. And there may certainly be a case to be made for some of the laws listed above.
But the pace at which such bills have been passed in the last three years (not to mention the lack of public hearings for some bills) is striking. “The irony is that Republicans favor local control, Witynski says. “I have individual Republican legislators tell me, ‘I’m for local control, you guys are closer to the problem.’ Individually, they see themselves as proponents of local control, but their votes over time don’t seem to add up to that.”
In most cases that’s because they end up voting in favor of businesses at the expense of local governments. The latest example of this is a proposed bill that would greatly restrict the ability of local governments to restrict mining. The bill is extraordinarily far-reaching and will hand tremendous freedom to both iron mining and sand mining companies at the expense of local governments concerned about their environment.
But beyond those mining companies, Witynski says, the bill will greatly restrict local governments from regulating water quality, water quantity and stormwater, air quality or emissions, and dump sites used by road builders. Increasingly, Republican legislators are showing that they believe top-down solutions from Madison are better for the people than those by local governments.