Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Madison Knows Best

GOP legislators have passed 128 restrictions to "local control" in the past six years.

By - May 30th, 2016 11:35 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Rosina Peixoto.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Rosina Peixoto.

Their official Blue Book biographies say almost half of all legislators started their political careers in local governments – as mayors, members of city councils, and on school, town, village and county boards. Many still hold local government jobs.

That’s why it was surprising that Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislators, with help from a few Democrats, approved 128 changes since 2011 that either told local governments they had to do something or told those local governments they could not specifically do something.

It’s even more surprising because, for decades, Republicans claimed to champion “local control” more than Democrats. But, for the last six years, in the clash between “local control” and “Madison knows best,” Madison has usually won.

Assistant Assembly Democratic Leader Katrina Shankland asked the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau to compile that 128-item list. Local government leaders, afraid of what new limits or requirements may be inflicted on them next session, declined to comment.

Shankland asked only for changes enacted since Republicans took control of the Capitol in 2011, which is misleading. Governors and legislators of both parties have been telling local governments what they can and cannot do since Wisconsin became a state in 1848. More on that later.

Still, the six-year total of 128 was striking, as was the scope of the changes that became law. They ranged from major to petty.

Some major changes: All but eliminating collective bargaining by public employees. Cutting the pay and authority of Milwaukee County supervisors. Limiting local governments’ taxing powers to control property tax bills. Telling local clerks when their offices can register new voters and accept absentee ballots, and that voters must display a photo ID. Not allowing county executives to serve in the Legislature. Dictating shoreline setback building rules. Limiting counties’ authority over new mines. Telling local governments they can’t require all employees to live in their communities.

Other Capitol dictates to local governments seemed petty:

*Telling local governments they cannot stop churches from celebrating with a real Christmas tree.

*Listing which local shooting ranges must be allowed to continue.

*Prohibiting local governments from giving electronic pricing price scanners to retailers.

*Regulating fire suppression systems in county fairground buildings.

*Telling local governments they cannot ban plastic bags retailers offer shoppers.

*Prohibiting local governments from enacting moratoriums on evictions.

Shankland was predictably outraged at what she called Republicans’ power grabs that eroded the authority of local officials.

“Republicans repeatedly used their majority to tie the hands of local lawmakers or pass the buck onto them through an unfunded mandate,” Shankland said. “Republicans repeatedly used their majority in a blatant government overreach.”

She admitted, though, that some of her fellow Assembly Democrats voted for 48 of the 128 changes.

Shankland also noted that other limits on local governments were debated, but never became law. For example, Republicans came close to passing the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill that would tell local governments they could not stop their police officers from asking someone they arrest whether they are in the country legally.

Asked about the 128 limits on local governments, Walker told reporters many of them – including Act 10, which all but eliminated collective bargaining – were passed to control  property taxes on homes.

The governor told reporters: “Rep. Shankland, who asked for the memo, doesn’t like that. She apparently wants property taxes to go up in the state. We don’t think they should. We think local property taxpayers should be protected, and that’s the ultimate form of local control.”

Walker has estimated that Act 10 saved state and local governments about $5 billion. It “put the power back in the hands of the local taxpayers and the people they elect to run their schools, their cities, their towns, their counties and their villages,” he added.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said it often “makes sense” for the Legislature to impose a statewide standard, instead of having businesses deal with conflicting community-by-community rules on the same issue.

An example of how Democrats have dictated to local governments?

Democrats, led by Gov. Jim Doyle, controlled the Capitol in the 2009-10 session of the Legislature. That’s when they told all public school districts they must offer 5-year-old kindergarten classes. Before that, local school boards had a choice.

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

One thought on “The State of Politics: Madison Knows Best”

  1. Milwaukee Native says:

    The legislature gave Milwaukee’s county executive the power to sell or otherwise dispose of any property that is not specifically zoned parks with just the signature of a single real-estate pro from the municipality where the property is located. (The county comptroller can vote no but be overruled by the appointed real-estate shill.)

    That power extends to all conserved land that’s outside of a named park. That may include thousands of acres but the county is stalling on releasing that list.

    Not even Walker has anywhere near that power. Since the legislature voted to have some conserved lands sold or transferred if they were not considered valuable for conservation, there has been a thorough vetting process by DNR and a transparent public comment process. Not so with MKE County exec Chris Abele, who can work any number of deals virtually in secret until they are sealed. It’s believed GOP legislators gave him this immense power in return for his committing, without any county board input, the giveaway of $4 million annually for the Bucks Arena, 10 acres of prime lend to the Bucks owners for their personal speculation, plus finagling other giveways that took the state off the hook.

    Despite all the love Abele gets from Madison, he has not been able to get much out of the Legislature to actually help out Milwaukee County, including for the parallel school district in MKE the Legislature created for Abele to oversee. That new dsitrict is somehow supposed to improve outcomes by decreasing per-student spending.

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