Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Decline of Local Control

Republicans favor local control. So why are they passing so many laws ending it?

By - Nov 1st, 2013 12:31 pm

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.”

Milwaukee opposed the bill, but as a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted, the law was also decried by heavily Republican municipalities like Brookfield and River Hills.

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.

Categories: Murphy's Law

11 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Decline of Local Control”

  1. DairyStateMom says:

    Wait, no property taxes for buildings used to age cheese?!??! I knew there was a reason I wanted to try making cheese in my kitchen! Then we can age it … whoopie, no property taxes!!

    Teh stupid, it burns…it burns…

    Thanks for a great (and depressing) column, Bruce.

  2. Dean Deardurff says:

    What is the problem of a smaller government? Maybe we just need internment camps for everybody. Better control, dictate what you can eat, drink, and when to sleep. It would be for the greater good. If would help just one person, it would be worth it. Most importantly, limit your speech and the ability to speak out against are fine government. After all, it would keep in line with the democratic s party policies of internment camps, there the only party that has done such actions in the past and what hussein is working to accomplish to declare marshal law and suspends future elections.

  3. Tim says:

    Dean, who do you think you can convince with that screed? And then it hits me, the stupid and gullible, which makes sense considering the current GOP.

  4. blurondo says:

    “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.”
    As has been stated by others many times before, “The best government money can buy”.
    We are mired in an environment of political greed and no act of selling out is too low. Let the voter be damned.

  5. Edith Wagner says:

    Does anyone know how much legislators are paid for these votes?

  6. capper says:

    Mr. Murphy,

    Did you not advocate for Act 14? Why did you not mention that in this post? Rather hypocritical.

  7. bruce murphy says:

    Capper, that’s a relevant point. I did consider including ACT 14 — the bill reducing county board power — into the story, but in talking to the Wisconsin Counties Association, they noted they took no stand, because Milwaukee was divided on the issue, with board opposed and county exec, business leaders, etc in favor. And of course the home rule charter for cities is far stronger than for counties, which largely operate as the local administrator for state agencies. What struck me in talking to the counties association is that counties are very different in their take on the local control issue. It would really require a separate story.

  8. John Foust says:

    Don’t forget 2007’s Act 42, the ALEC-drafted, ATT-sponsored rewrite of the state’s cable franchise system, spearheaded by Montgomery and Plale. Before, local governments each negotiated the terms by which a cable provider could bring service to their area. There was no monopoly, as all comers could enter on the same terms. The rewrite eliminated local decisions about the funding of community television stations, which has since led to the shutdown of stations in Wausau and West Allis, and the gutting of the station in Madison.
    Bizarrely, the law gave state-level franchise approval to the Department of Financial Institutions, who appeared at the public hearing and reminded legislators that they had no idea why this was being given to them, as they had no experience with telecom law, and pointed out the law gave them no way to reject an application. Instead of local control and oversight, state-level franchises were to be rubber-stamped.

  9. jake says:

    A dagger to the heart to the WI Charlie Sykes(JS communications) conservative lie that they are the champions of local control. A steamy stinking pile of hypocrisy, and situational principles at their best.

  10. jake says:

    Fact: Wi republicans are the Whores for corporations in this state, they use and stoke their voters bigotry of black people and latinos, and ideoligical hatred of liberals and democrats to get this pro corporate anticonsumer result.

  11. Dean Deardurff says:

    Are all liberal democrats ass holes?

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