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.