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