On May 17, 2011 Assembly Bills 138 , 139, and 140 were introduced out of the Special Committee on Local Service Consolidation, and into the Joint Committee on Urban and Rural Affairs. These bills effect the relationship between municipalities and the state, and will encourage the consolidation not only of services, but entire local governments. As bdgrdemocracy has reported in previous blogs, radical change is coming in this type of legislation. These three bills will likely begin installing the supporting “tools” the Governor and the DOA will need to classify municipalities as “insolvent,” or in “financial crisis” using fiscal “stress tests.” The influence of The Greater Milwaukee Committee and The Public Policy Forum are highly evident in these bills, and should serve as red flags to anyone engaged in the preservation of Democracy.
Assembly Bill 138 (see link above) repeals the requirement set forth beginning in 2010, that municipalities may not spend less on Emergency Services than they did in 2009; thereby allowing municipalities to cut emergency services to meet state revenue shortfalls. AB 139 (link above) creates a loan process regulated by the DOA for study or implementing consolidation of “governmental units’ ” (cities, villages, counties, school districts) services or even consolidating with other governmental units. This bill could lead to consolidation of villages and cities, further centralizing power to the state and out of strong municipalities. AB 140 (link above) lifts the levy restriction on governmental units that implement consolidation of services or units; actually creating financial incentive to consolidate – again impacting the existence of strong, independent local governments as a balance of power to the state. The evolution of these bills begins in the Special Committee on Local Service Consolidation, originally formed to study the effects of service consolidation within municipalites, and how it relates to current fiscal challenges. The current form of the bills (now in committee) displays the influence of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, supporting the agenda of Scott Walker.
The Special Committee on Local Service Consolidation was formed by the Joint Legislative Council in July, 2010 and met for the first time in August, 2010. The stated purpose in the opening minutes by Chair Zepnick – to study the “relationship between state and local governments,” particularly service consolidation issues facing the city and county of Milwaukee. The membership of the committee comprised legislators (Zepnick, Gottlieb, Stone, and Pocan) and private citizens. Of the private citizens invited to participate in the committee, several submitted testimony which cast doubt as to the effectiveness of privatization in service delivery, including Chuck Law, Alan Probst, and Steven Deller, from the University of Wisconsin. One study they presented found privatized services to be lacking in accountability and cost-effectiveness, especially in small rural areas (the study was conducted in New Hampshire). Other studies cited supported similar conclusions – little savings actually occurs in privatization (if any), and the quality of service is questionable based on lack of public accountability.
Three of the presentations in the first meeting came from Ron Henken, President of the Public Policy Forum. Earlier in January of 2010, the Public Policy Forum released it’s study commissioned by the Greater Milwaukee Committee “Should it Stay or Should it Go” . The study’s purpose, as stated in the opening remarks, was to examine the elimination of Milwaukee County Government. The idea was supported fully by then County Executive Walker, as revealed here in previous blogs. Examination of subsequent minutes and testimony shows this research from the Public Policy Forum, funded by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, set the tone and agenda of this special committee as the bill was drafted. It is apparent the agenda of the Greater Milwaukee Committee is about to be practiced throughout the state of Wisconsin – not just Milwaukee County. Although the initial intent of the Committee was examination of service consolidation as it relates to fiscal management, the evolution of legislation coming out of its activity reflects the influence the GMC plays in state government and legislation. The initial discussion and presentation in the bi-partisan committee during August presented a balance of opinion. After the November election of Scott Walker, the testimony to the committee centered on consolidation policies supported by the Greater Milwaukee Committee through the Public Policy Institute. All this occurred in a Special Committee without public input or oversight. The individual bills taken out of context seem rather mundane – taken in the context of potential “financial stress test” legislation, and state power centralization away from local governments, the bills present several red flags.
A conversation with a Zepnick staff member attending all the Special Committee meetings confirms the change in tone of the committee, post Walker election. He confirms the validity of questioning the scope of these bills coming out of committee, and states that Representative Zepnick will evaluate the context and nature of the bills when they come out of committee before supporting them.
The connection between the agenda of the Greater Milwaukee Committee through Public Policy Forum research (commissioned by the GMC), and the agenda of Governor Walker encouraging consolidation and privatization is unmistakable. These bills are harbingers of additional “tools” necessary for Scott Walker to centralize and consolidate power to his office. The attempt to end collective bargaining rights was the first step and lynchpin of this agenda. The second step is the ability of the Governor and DOA to establish at-will regulations to ease corporate access to resources and municipalities. Third step – weaken municipalities by limiting their revenue stream and decreasing shared revenue, as well as creating more fiscal stress through these actions. Encouraging consolidation as a “fix” also weakens strong, independent city governments. Finally, create “stress tests” and “financial transparency” legislation to create litmus tests, empowering the state to classify municipalities as “financially insolvent.” This would open the floodgates to corporations waiting in line for no-bid, privatized service contracts to alleviate the “financial stress” they are under – all at the direction of the Governor and DOA. The “stress test” legislation has been worked on by lobbyists at Smart Government, Inc., and will most likely be introduced in June (see previous bdgrdemocracy blog links, above). Collective bargaining legislation is held up in court – hopefully in perpetuity. The other “tools” are either in place or exist as bills in committee.
These bills cannot be allowed to be used by the Governor and GOP corporatics to weaken Wisconsin’s municipal governments. The state should be investing in our cities, not creating financial stress in an already challenging fiscal climate. The right to collective bargain must also be preserved, as it is the only blockade to the Governor’s grand scheme. Privatization and consolidation cannot occur where legal active contracts are in place for public service employees. If collective bargaining restrictions are introduced in the budget, they must be stopped. Contact legislators and share this information – tell them to kill these and any other bills that weaken our strong, vibrant cities. As one of Mark Pocan’s staff said – strong and independent cities are a great check for overreaching state power. So are strong progressive voters.