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The modern far-right movement and its beard, the Republican Party, makes lots of noise about local government being better in touch with the people than state or national government. But in its actual machinations, that movement does whatever it likes to get its way.

And so the ultra-conservative governor of Michigan passes a law that lets him seize control of locally elected units of government (because of alleged fiscal emergencies), and the ultra-conservative governor of Wisconsin orders local governments and school districts to stop negotiating with their employee labor unions, whom he and his cohorts dislike politically.

The latest example of this gross intrusiveness into local decision-making comes to Wisconsin from those now-notorious Koch brothers, through the Americans For Prosperity (AFO) advocacy organization that their millions largely fund.

Through its Wisconsin chapter (itself a beard for out-of-state interference), AFP is now running a web site urging non-Milwaukeeans to sign an online petition opposing the city's plans for a $65 million, ultra-modern, downtown streetcar route.

You might ask: AFP, WTF?!  Why would a national conservative organization care whether one city in Wisconsin is planning to build a streetcar line? Answers below the fold.

AFP's  opposition extends in part because its political friends, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, oppose the streetcar, but also partly because modern conservative orthodoxy is against mass transit in general. Never mind the many Republican-managed cities like Portland, Oregon, that developed extensive light-rail loops. The anti-streetcar push is also partly driven by conservative antipathy regarding anything that Democratic administrations nationally, statewide or locally think is a good idea -- knee-jerk ideology that says, it's only a good idea when we propose it.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city, remains one of the last major metro areas in the country that doesn't have a multi-mode mass transit system. Most other cities its size and larger already have light rail and streetcars, and those systems have proved beneficial for travelers, tourism, environmental protection and economic development. But to hear conservatives scream about it, it's all just a waste of money.

For nearly a quarter century, Milwaukee worked hard to develop light rail, but conservative opponents including Walker killed that off with nit-picking, foot-dragging and heavy lobbying. The forces against change also killed what would have been a new inter-city rail commuter line linking Milwaukee to the state's south shore cities and ultimately Chicago.

And the moment he won the governorship, Walker -- who was among those fighting both those Milwaukee projects -- also single-handedly destroyed the billion-dollar Wisconsin portion of the high-speed passenger rail project that would have served the entire Midwest.

As if that weren't bad enough, Walker, while Milwaukee County executive, also wasn't a mentor of the county-owned bus system that serves the city, cutting routes and raising fares in moves that eventually hurt the increasing number of low-income working residents who can't afford cars. Conservatives in neighboring Waukesha County in fact pushed to cut Milwaukee County Transit System routes that covered some of that county's eastern cities, bringing inner city Milwaukeeans (read: mostly minorities) to the far suburbs, where an increasing number of Milwaukee jobs had moved. Hey, some of the Waukesha voices said, we can't have people coming here from the big city to walk among us and rape or rob us! Yup, that's the third anti-mass transit component: racism.

In the streetcar project, when the City of Milwaukee won a battle with Milwaukee County over how to use its share of federal mass-transit funds jointly awarded to the city and county, County Executive Walker, deciding that the enemy of his enemy was his friend, sided with the bus system against the city's plan, which won't replace buses in the city but only complement them.

Milwaukee finally won its funding, nevertheless, and has been planning the line for over a year. Then along came the Madison-based, conservative, self-styled think tank, the MacIver Institute for Public Policy, with a "policy paper" explaining why the streetcar is a bad idea. Mainly, the evidence came down to public utility costs: Building the line inevitably would require communications and power utilities in the city to relocate some of their underground cables and conduits, a multi-million-dollar proposition.

That's not unusual: When governments at all levels decide to rebuild highways or other key public infrastructure, utilities often must be moved. But MacIver made the novel argument that the costs of moving these utilities should be borne not by ratepayers or stockholders of the companies in question, but by city government (i.e., local taxpayers).

Never mind that the utilities locate their lines in public-owned and public-controlled rights of way only with the forbearance and at the convenience of the city. If customers or stockholders of the companies had to pay for moving the lines, that would be an unfair burden on people outside the city, MacIver nevertheless argued.

Never mind that Milwaukee taxpayers have over the decades had to support all manner of infrastructure and other projects all across the state and indeed nation, including highway projects. The shoe didn't fit on the other foot.

Conservatives didn't just make noise about this "issue." They sought and got the state's utility regulatory body, the Public Service Commission (now stuffed with Scott Walker appointees) to review the matter and decide whether the city or the utilities should pay for relocating the latter's infrastructure. The PSC hasn't yet ruled, but a ruling in favor of the utilities would have huge unintended consequences for all the other municipalities in the state, who sooner or later will have to rebuild roads, dig up sewer lines and more, all at risk of having to pay utilities to move the lines and cables and pipes that let them profit at public expense.

To its credit, the City of Milwaukee has been working patiently with the utilities to find ways to minimize the cost of moving infrastructure, but that may mean re-routing the streetcar away from its optimum path. Then, perhaps, when ridership doesn't rise to the expectations of that optimum, naysayers like MacIver which were responsible for this marginalization will complain some more about boondoggles.

If the PSC rules that the city must pick up all the utility costs, that might just kill the streetcar project altogether, because Milwaukee would overrun its federal grant and have to dig into its bare pockets for the balance.

In short, all of this has been another ploy by the usual group of conservatives to kill another mass-transit project in Milwaukee, a city whose votes and economic influence they'd be happy to see decline some more. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why, increasingly, we in America can't have nice things.

But this isn't just about the big city versus everyone else. For example, through legislation and various deregulation schemes, conservatives previously have managed to kill not-for-profit public communications networks in smaller Wisconsin communities, at the behest of for-profit outfits like AT&T and cable providers, because the for-profits don't like competition, especially if it's cost-effective competition. And now that those private utilities have de facto monopolies, they don't even want to pay to have to move the equipment they were permitted to locate -- free or for very modest fees -- in public rights of way.

What a country, huh?

But Milwaukee is the big kahuna that upstaters love to hate, and so it's been a special target, especially among conservatives who regard the city as simply too Democratic, politically. Walker and his GOP legislature have meddled in all sorts of ways, cutting state aids, forcing mandates on public schools and even putting forth a bill that would allow Milwaukee firefighters, police and teachers to live outside the city limits -- a state requirement that would not be imposed on any other locality.

The tone for all the wingnut interference in the Milwaukee's local affairs may have been set more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, who is now the GOP's Wisconsin candidate for US senator. Thompson, once an advocate of rail transit, was trying to shepherd through a package of public and private funding to build Miller Park, a new domed venue for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club. Encountering resistance from upstate taxpayers, Thompson hit upon the argument of limiting a special property tax assessment for the project just to the Milwaukee metro area.

After all, it isn't like anyone from outside the City of Milwaukee ever goes to a ballgame, right? Or to the State Fair in West Allis. Or to any of the University of Wisconsin campuses dotted across two dozen communities. Or to any of the Wisconsin's many state parks. But upstaters just didn't want to contribute. Leading to Tommy's famous dictum, uttered in the hinterlands as he pointed in the direction of Milwaukee: "Stick it to 'em!"

And there you have it. When Milwaukee wants something for itself that will benefit the community and the state, the current conservative expectation is that it should pay for it all by itself. But when anyone else in this state wants something, Milwaukee is expected to help kick in its fair share, if not more.

But remember, upstaters: Wisconsin without Milwaukee would be Iowa. Fields of dreamy thought, maybe, but from an economic perspective, the badger state needs its largest city, and vice versa.

Originally posted to Ron Legro on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 11:55 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tipped for Great Title (7+ / 0-)

    It's so good I want to steal it.

  •  Very well-written and thorough analysis. (6+ / 0-)

    As unpleasant as the truth behind your subject, it was enjoyable to read for the skill with which you handle the complexities and tie the perils across the nation in other ALEC controlled governships, legislatures, and local governing offices and groups to the specific issue of publically financed transit and the Milwaukee problems.

    If there were any way to specifically identify and tabulate the number of ordinances, regulations, laws, and legal decisions which have been or are being influenced by financing from the extreme 1%, the number would be staggering.

    99%er. 100% opposed to fundamentalist/neoconservative/neoliberal oligarchs.

    by blueoasis on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 01:33:57 PM PDT

  •  The funniest part (8+ / 0-)

    about this conservative hostility to light rail is that in "the good old days" they always wax so poetical about urban centers and their environs were dense networks of light rail, not just in the cities themselves but extended well out into their surrounding hinterlands.  The urban and interurban trollies were indispensable to the growth and sustainability of urban America in the first place.

    Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

    by ActivistGuy on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 04:00:45 PM PDT

    •  And those kinds of things enabled families and (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ActivistGuy, ER Doc, Notreadytobenice

      extended families to live near each other.  To take trollies and local trains to connect with each other.  Once people began to spread out into suburbs and exurbs, and once highways dominated and cars became necessary, and once trains began to fade away due to oil lobby pressuring... families began to spread out accordingly, and to burst apart like the tail ends of spark clusters in fireworks shows.  

      That's one more thing to add to my long list of small problems. --my son, age 10

      by concernedamerican on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 07:23:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The Koch's have obviously poured millions into (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sark Svemes

    Wisconsin.

    My question, as someone who is unfamiliar with the State, is why?

    Why Wisconsin?

    A man, or men, like the Kochs don't carelessly sow their millions of seeds (dollars) onto barren ground.  They must have seen something in Wisconsin that called out to them.

    Can a Wisconsonite explain the fertile ground that that the Kochs recognized early on and did their best to water, fertilize and tend to?

    There is still a piece of the Wisconsin puzzle that elludes me.  It looks like it will swing in Obama's direction come November, but Real Clear Politics still lists it as a toss up.

    What is Wisconsin?  Who are Wisconsonites?  How did you guys get to this place?

    Oregon: Sure...it's cold. But it's a damp cold.

    by Keith930 on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 05:39:24 PM PDT

    •  and is the state really in play this November? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Sark Svemes

      Oregon: Sure...it's cold. But it's a damp cold.

      by Keith930 on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 05:40:51 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  It's about breaking the strongest links (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      luckydog, blueoasis, ER Doc

      Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, have a progressive and labor history  that stands unmatched in the US.  They're tearing up the deepest roots.  Wisconsin not only produced the Lafollettes, and with them much of American Progressivism as we know it; Milwaukee, uniquely among American cities, had Socialist mayors and members of Congress, for decades.  Decades.  Go deeper, even further back, when the Republican Party was a progressive force in our society, it was at its founding--in Wisconsin.  Until these last two years, the level of unionism, in both public and private sectors, in Wisconsin rose far above most of the US.    These are the viruses, the lingering memories and social customs, that this campaign seeks to extinguish.

      Unfortunately, there's a very successful precedent to this effort.  There is a state that was at one time the home and birthplace of one left-wing legend after another, a state where a Socialist presidential candidate once got 16% of the vote.   But that, the state where Eugene Debs got one out of every six votes cast, the home of voices both distinctively American and distinctively Left, like Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie, is Oklahoma, and there won't ever be any more of that coming from there.  Now Wisconsin's getting the treatment for the same kind of makeover.

      Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

      by ActivistGuy on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 07:19:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Paper. Paper. Paper. Wisconsin has long been (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      luckydog

      a paper industry state, no?  And the Kochs don't just make paper; they make spandex and stuff like that, no?  I speculate that they see it as their territory for doing whatever the hell they'd like to do with their present and future manufacturing needs.

      That's one more thing to add to my long list of small problems. --my son, age 10

      by concernedamerican on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 07:24:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  The Kochs do have financial interests in Wisconsin (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ER Doc

      ...but I don't think that's why they're meddling in local (not just statewide) policy-making. In part it's just because they have huge resources and rapacious, ideological desires (chief among them, thinking they know better about everything).

      Mainly, though, this is all driven by the current overriding GOP political and campaign strategy, engineered by Karl Rove: You go after your opponent's main strength. In the case of the Democratic Party as a whole, one of those strengths is its fierce support for Medicare. In the case of urban areas, Democrats have supported public and private unions (the last bastions of both), mass transit, programs that aid lower and fixed-income citizens, environmental quality, programs to attract immigrants and support for minorities, and more. Kill mass transit and you hurt most of these programs while making local Democratic officials look weak. It's a two-fer, if you're a Koch-head.

    •  A real purple state (0+ / 0-)

      Wisconsin has over the decades been progressive, but it's also been quite bipolar politically. The state that gave us the modern American socialist movement and the progressives also gave us Joe McCarthy. But the norm over most of its existence was two steps forward, one backward -- Republicans represented the most conservative, reactionary interests but most GOP lawmakers were moderate or only mildly conservative. That's changed. Meanwhile, Democrats in reaction to the GOP rush rightward began moving toward the center.

      So for every progressive like Russ Feingold there are a dozen Tim Cullens, Cullen being the Democratic state legislator who happens to like (even though not always agreeing) with Paul Ryan, his fellow lawmaker from the region.

      This is now beginning to shift back, however. In the latest primary elections a week ago, the Milwaukee state legislative delegation shifted almost completely away from moderate to progressive Democrats. Losers included incumbents who had supported private school choice programs and other conservative causes. There is hope.

      The only question is whether fat-cat outfits like those that the Kochs fund will leave anything besides salted, scorched earth for the new wave of Wisconsin progressives. Once again, we'll be cleaning up their messes and getting blamed for it. Or maybe this time it'll be different. A Sisyphean, but necessary burden.

  •  The sad part is that Milwaukee had a street car (6+ / 0-)

    system back in the early 20th century. When the automobile took over the streets the lines were abandoned, torn up and/or paved over. SE Wisconsin also has a light rail line that if it still existed, would have been a model for the country. When I lived in western Racine county many years ago, the remnants of the tracks were still evident. The line ran all the way from Milwaukee to Lake Geneva. Parts of it, like so many other former rail right of ways, has been made into a rec trail.

    Mitt's full of it / Ryan's lyin' -- "Your money and your life."

    by BusyinCA on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 06:14:42 PM PDT

  •  An observation I have to make. (5+ / 0-)

    I've lived in the US for 19 years now, mostly in Chicago, Boston and New Mexico. I've visited most of the rest of the country.

    Suburban Milwaukee is the only place I've ever heard whites casually using the word "nigger."

    That region is thoroughly infected with active malice towards Milwaukee and the blacks residing therein. Anything that improves Milwaukee, they will oppose.

  •  Good diary. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, ER Doc, Notreadytobenice

    We decided to move the center farther to the right by starting the whole debate from a far-right position to begin with. - Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

    by denise b on Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 08:28:54 PM PDT

  •  You could be describing Atlanta. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KateCrashes, Notreadytobenice

    Efforts to have a modern, effective rail/bus system always get stopped in their tracks by racism here. The perimeter highway is a tolerable rough marker for the lines. Beyond it, long drives lead to remote suburbs which are, themselves, only negotiable by auto or golfcart. Within it, the system is decent and getting better.

    There is also the same cultural gulf between the city and areas beyond it. Political gulf too. Democrats, activists, progessives intown and reddest of red beyond the perimeter.  

    When we think of red/blue demographics in the US, I hope we look at cities first before we lump entire states into one or the other category.  From what I've read at this very website over a number of years, I get the impression that political tension and cultural gulfs exist between cities and their surrounding areas in many parts of the country.

    I wonder if it would make sense for cities to act more like a confederation than isolated centers?  Seems like many of our cities have a lot in common.  Is it feasible or reasonable for cities to work together to push common concerns?  If cities could establish better legal/economic relationships to the states where they are located, what would that look like?  

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