Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

County Board Goes Crazy Over Referendums

Board wants to put 4 advisory referendum questions on the ballot, at a cost of more than $100,000. Why?

By - Jul 10th, 2014 10:59 am
Marina Dimitrijevic.

Marina Dimitrijevic.

Bring your reading glasses to the polling place on November 4th. If the Milwaukee County Board has its way, you’ll be wading through a long list of referendum questions on the November ballot, all of which are simply advisory and will not change anything.

You’ll be asked if the state should raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. You’ll be consulted as to whether the state should use federal medicaid funds to expand Obamacare. You’ll be questioned as to whether the county executive position should be eliminated in favor of an appointed county administrator. Finally, in the grandest of the referendum questions, you’ll be able to ponder whether the Constitution should be revised to establish that only human beings, and not corporations are entitled to constitutional rights, and if you think “money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”

There are no right or wrong answers here, folks, because frankly, your opinions, once counted, will collect dust at the county courthouse forever more. Three of these four referendum questions have nothing to do with county government and one seems to be based on the daft thought that the opinions of a county with about one-fifth of one percent of the nation’s population will somehow sway the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its decision loosening restrictions on political contributions by corporations.

“I mean, for goodness sakes, in the grand scheme of things, we’re small potatoes,” Supervisor Mark Borkowski told the Wisconsin Reporter. “If anybody thinks that having this on the ballot is actually going to make a difference, then they’re delusional.”

Is it something in the water at the county courthouse that leads the supervisors, by large majorities, to make so many questionable decisions? The County Board advanced the referendum on the Supreme Court decision by 14-4 in May and then overrode a veto by County Executive Chris Abele.

In his veto message noting that adding this referendum question would cost the taxpayers an estimated $25,000 to $40,000, Abele said, “I don’t believe the taxpayers of Milwaukee County are interested in spending their hard-earned money on a referendum that does not bind decision-makers. Numerous polls tell us the majority of Americans are against the Citizen United ruling, and I would expect an advisory referendum would give us the same input. Spending even $1 of taxpayer money without binding decision makers is both wasteful and gets us no closer to overturning Citizens United.”

A review by the Milwaukee County Elections Commission found that adding one referendum question to the 2008 ballot cost $32,000. The expense came from the increased printing costs for the nearly one million ballots prepared for county voters and the cost of advertising: by law any referendum question must be published in area news publications to alert taxpayers.

The county Comptroller’s Office has estimated that putting three more referendums on the ballot will cost $75,000 to $120,000. The total cost for the four questions could cost anywhere from $100,000 to $160,000. Abele has vetoed the more recent board resolution adding the three other referendum questions, but the board will likely overrule those vetoes as well.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Khalif Rainey, who introduced the referendum on raising the minimum wage, sent a press release saying “Voters need to be able to express themselves on this issue. An advisory referendum, which I believe would pass easily, would put pressure on State lawmakers who have been dragging their feet on this issue.”

But it will be no surprise to Gov. Scott Walker or Republican legislators that Milwaukee County voters support a minimum wage hike or support accepting the federal money to expand Medicaid. Walker knows all too well that this county voted overwhelmingly against him for governor in two successive elections. There is absolutely no chance the governor or legislature will change their position on these two issues.

And if the goal is to send a message to the Republicans, there is a much cheaper way to do it, one that won’t cost taxpayers a cent. “If Supervisors were to pass a resolution stating their opposition to Citizens United or supportive of raising the minimum wage or supportive of expanding BadgerCare, I would happily sign it and do a joint press release,” Abele has noted. “I think that would make as a compelling a statement as a non-binding referendum without costing taxpayers.”

You’ll note that Abele’s message didn’t address the referendum question that would essentially eliminate his position, replacing the county executive with an appointed county administrator. This question at least has the virtue of actually being related to county government. As I’ve argued before, the positions of county board chair and county executive are largely duplicative, as each essentially oversees county departments and functions, which is the main task of the entire county board.

I still think the referendum question is a bad idea, because there is no chance legislators will do a complete flip-flop and after just passing a law reducing the board’s power and enhancing that of the county executive, would pass a bill giving supervisors complete control over a hired county administrator. This would essentially overrule the 1960 referendum creating the position of an elected county executive and would run counter to the recent referendum where county voters approved the idea of downsizing the board. Finally, it would flip-flop the power in county government before we’ve had any time to see how the new structure works — or doesn’t — for the citizenry.

As Supervisor Patricia Jursik put it. “Unlike the other (referendum) questions, this will look like political payback” against Abele.

But at least this question is related to county government. The others are a waste of money and the voters’ time.

Of course there may be a political reason behind the referendums: to drive up voter turnout in the race for governor. But voters who don’t normally turn out won’t do so because of referendums on a supreme court decision or a policy question regarding how much federal money for Medicaid Walker should accept. If the goal is better turnout, there is only one hot button issue here: the minimum wage referendum.

But how does it look for the county board to spend the taxpayers money, including that of about a quarter of county voters who probably will vote to reelect Walker, in order to get more Democrats to vote against him? It’s the kind of decision that simply ramps up the already super-polarized climate in this state.

As Abele’s veto message put it, “To put this expenditure into focus, instead of spending $120,000 on three non-binding referendums we could:

*   Serve 13,800 more home meals to seniors;

*   or collect $2.16 million more owed to families by processing 4,500 more child support cases a year;

*   or expand the re-entry program for female inmates at the House of Correction while also establishing a post high school vocational training program for 25 inmates a year.”

Board chair Marina Dimitrijevic has offered little comment on these referendums, even as she has voted for them. (She has been all the more careful about any controversy now that she is running for the state assembly.) Indeed, board members have had little response to Abele’s arguments.

Which will leave voters wondering why the board makes these kinds of decisions with the taxpayers’ dollars. And then supervisors wonder why the public has such a low opinion of the county board.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: County Board Goes Crazy Over Referendums”

  1. Beer Baron says:

    So agreed with all of this. I support a higher minimum wage etc. etc. etc. I like the idea of binding referendums on stuff, so let’s work on that and actually make a difference instead a voter we know will pass but then be quickly forgotten. If you wanted to make a dent, have an advisory referendum in Waukesha County and Racine County on raising the minimum wage or whatnot. If they passed, then they’d put a little more pressure on Walker.

  2. Patty says:

    I disagree – our voices matter and several of these issues are important ones. In the words of MLK, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Just because this referendum will not immediately result in a change does not mean it will have no impact at all.

  3. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Referendum are like taking a leak in your nice new blue serge suit. You get a nice warm feeling all over but no one really notices.
    Unless there is a big debate some ads nothing happens.


  4. Tyrell Track Master says:

    I can’t believe these people.

    FOLKS! This is why people vote republican. When democrats do idiotic things like this it embarrasses progressive and turns things backwards! Thank god Chris Abele gets it…

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