Votes on Local Control Show Special Interests, Party Loyalty Outweigh Community

September 26, 2016

Legislative votes on dozens of bills since 2011 that reduced local control or imposed spending mandates show party loyalty and special interest campaign contributions trumped community ties. About half of the lawmakers in the legislature once held a local government office, but that didn’t stop them from interfering with local control.

Republican legislators and GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who have been in control of state government since 2011, have approved about 130 stand-alone bills or state budget measures that reduced or prohibited local control. Walker himself is a former Milwaukee County executive.

It is ironic that Walker and legislative Republicans, who frequently blast the federal government for setting uniform standards and requirements for states, are eager to do the same thing to local government leaders and their citizens on a wide array of issues. The laws approved by the legislature and Walker since 2011 have restricted school districts, cities, counties, villages, towns and technical college boards from handling education, environmental, land use, public health and safety, and transportation issues, among others. Many of the items may seem minor but some have significant impacts, including preventing communities from:

  • Requiring pipeline companies to carry more insurance for oil pipeline disasters;
  • Issuing photo IDs for voting, and setting in-person, absentee voting hours as they see fit;
  • Conducting voter registration drives;
  • Regulating mortgage loans and real estate brokers;
  • Regulating the way landlords treat renters and charging inspection fees;
  • Setting residency requirements and paid sick leave policies;
  • Increasing levy limits for counties and municipalities;
  • Creating regional transit authorities;
  • Establishing local transportation project bidding requirements;
  • Setting numerous shoreland zoning and construction erosion and storm runoff standards;
  • Banning or restricting bow and arrow and crossbow hunting and shooting ranges.

Nearly all of these local government restrictions and prohibitions were sought by a mix of business, real estate, construction, agriculture or a dozen other special interests that contributed more than $68 million to legislative and statewide candidates between January 2011 and December 2015, including $36.8 million to Walker.

In addition to benefiting from direct contributions from special interest money, rank-and-file legislators, who often voted along party lines to support or oppose local controls and spending mandates, are expected to follow their legislative leaders, who milk special interests for campaign cash. If rank-and-file legislators buck, they risk getting no party support at election time.

Here are some highlights of a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review of the local control measures and spending mandates approved since 2011 by the legislature and the governor:

  • About half of the members of the legislature between 2011 and 2016 had held a local government office, mostly on a county board or a city council, and more legislative Republicans held local government offices than Democrats.

In each of the past three legislative sessions, between 15 and 18 members of the 33-member Senate had held local government offices, divided almost equally between Republicans and Democrats. In the 99-member Assembly, between 46 and 49 members during the past three legislative sessions had held local government offices, but sharply more of them, between 28 and 33 in each legislative session, were GOP lawmakers;

  • Bills undermining local control that were approved since 2011 on roll call votes showed Republicans and Democrats voted along party lines most of the time, with Republicans generally favoring them and Democrats usually opposing them.

Twenty-four stand-alone bills were approved on party-line or near party-line votes in one or both houses of the legislature. Another 65 measures were approved in three state biennial budgets that received near party-line approval in both the Assembly and Senate before they were signed into law by Walker.

Forty-one stand-alone bills were approved on voice votes in the Senate or Assembly, or both. Another nine stand-alone bills were approved on unanimous or near-unanimous votes in the Senate or Assembly, or both.

Only six stand-alone bills were approved on a bipartisan vote.

  • The supporters of these bills undermining local control were frequently not transparent or identifiable by the public. About half of the measures to restrict local control were stand-alone bills and the other half were part of the 2011-13, 2013-15 and 2015-17 state budget bills.

Sixty-three stand-alone bills to restrict local control had identifiable sponsors, but were frequently approved on voice votes by the Assembly or Senate or both, making it impossible to know how strong support for the measure really was.

Of the 65 measures approved as part of the omnibus state budget bills, 22 proposals were originally introduced by Walker. But the remaining two-thirds were often anonymously tucked into the budget bills by legislators, making it impossible to see who was behind them. This practice greatly reduces overall accountability to voters since legislators can later claim they opposed a measure that diminished local control, but voted for a multiple issue budget amendment or the final budget because it contained numerous items that they supported.

  • Half of the 128 bills undermining local control that were approved in the last three legislative sessions were done in the most recent 2015-16 legislative session. Thirty-five proposals were approved as stand-alone bills and 29 were approved as part of the 2015-17 state budget.

The top five authors of these bills in the Senate and the number of bills each sponsored were GOP lawmakers Luther Olsen, of Ripon, 12; Frank Lasee, of De Pere, 11; Bob Cowles, of Green Bay, 9; Rick Gudex, of Fond du Lac, 9; and Howard Marklein, of Spring Green, 8.

Olsen, Lasee, and Gudex had previous local government experience.

The top five authors of these bills undermining local control in the Assembly and the number of bills each sponsored were GOP lawmakers Dave Murphy, of Greenville, 15; Jesse Kremer, of Kewaskum, 14; Tom Larson, of Colfax, 14; Alvin Ott, of Forest Junction, 13; and Joan Ballweg, of Markesan, 13.

Ott and Ballweg had previous local government experience.