The State of Michigan's anti-democratic "emergency manager law" can be seen as a naked power grab by state government over local governments. It has attracted much attention nationally, but so far Republican lawmakers in other states have not attempted anything quite so draconian, authoritarian and anti-democratic. But don't imagine that similar kinds of power grabs aren't going on, although on a more subtle level.
Right now, in Wisconsin, a GOP state legislator is touting a new bill that would effectively gut the power of the Milwaukee County Board, the elective body that makes policy for the state's largest county, whose area includes the state's largest city, Milwaukee. A draft bill would cut the pay of Milwaukee County’s 18 supervisors by 70 percent. His proposal is backed by business leaders including the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a group helmed by top local business executives.
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The Wisconsin law -- which hasn't materialized yet either as a formally introduced measure -- reportedly would reduce the size of the Milwaukee County Board -- meaning fewer supervisors, each of whom would serve more constituents.
The measure would all but wipe out the board's budget and its staff, including analysts who research policy and fiscal matters. Supervisor salaries would be cut drastically -- from a mid-five-figure annual salary to $15,000 -- and supervisor go from a full-time to part-time office. All this effectively would give the Milwaukee County executive, also an elected official, considerably more power. Can you say one-man rule, boys and girls?
When originally running for office, the current executive, Chris Abele, billed himself as a progressive, but he has strong ties to the local business community, significant members of which not only back the change but also have been behind the movement to make it happen. And, lest anyone forget, the previous county executive was Scott Walker, now Wisconsin's right-wing Republican governor, who is infamous for his authoritarian policies at both the county and state level.
Walker initiatives in his first two years as governor already have reduced the power of Wisconsin towns, villages, cities and counties. For instance, he grabbed back hundreds of millions of dollars in state shared revenues and imposed new limits on local governments, including property tax limits. He also, of course, largely ended collective bargaining by public employees in the state.
Thus, and based on his own past comments flirting with the Milwaukee County Board downsizing, it would seem Walker is poised sooner or later to become the next Rick Snyder, who already has signed anti-union "right to work" legislation in Michigan, something Walker also has toyed with, at least up until recently.
In Michigan, Public Act 4, the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act. was signed into law by GOP Gov. Snyder in March 2011. The measure vastly expanded the powers of an existing set of state-appointed, emergency financial managers. Those managers were appointed by Republican Governor John Engler in three state cities as a move to block the cities from declaring bankruptcy.
The expanded law signed by Snyder granted unprecedented new powers to the state's emergency managers. Among them: breaking public labor union contracts by fiat, taking over public pension systems, altering school curricula and even dissolving or dis-incorporating municipalities. Worse, the managers, appointed by the governor, can without recourse take over the duties of local elected and appointed officials, including mayors, commissions, city councils, department managers and others. Democracy need not apply. This is a crisis, dontcha know.
The political firestorm over this power grab by the state led to a successful Michigan voter referendum undoing the law. Unfazed, Snyder and Republican legislators ignored the public, simply and quickly enacting a similar version of the law, taking care to ensure it could not be challenged by another citizen referendum.
Perhaps GOP lawmakers in other states have learned from the Michigan experience, where the state's local government takeover was quite sudden and sweeping, generating public outcry that may yet prove the GOP's undoing. Non-Michigan Republicans have talked about similar "manager" laws in some places but so far they are in general being a lot more subtle since the battle with Snyder.
In Wisconsin, the grab for power in Milwaukee County -- a traditionally Democratic stronghold whose grip was weakened by a pension scandal a decade ago -- has been controversial but still far more muted than the issue in Michigan. Nothing has changed yet, and Walker along with Republican legislative leadership has in the face of criticism lately backed away from agreeing to immediate action. It wouldn't be surprising, however, to learn that they're simply waiting for things to cool down.
Nevertheless, business insiders and current Milwaukee County Executive Abele continue to insist the Milwaukee County Board is going to be downsized. So does Joe Sanfelippo, a former county supervisor who is a new Republican member of the state Assembly. He's the legislator who has been working on the bill to slash the board's funding and greatly reduce its status.
Milwaukee’s full-time board is the most powerful county legislature in Wisconsin. In some of the state's other 71 counties, elected executives tend to hold more power while the boards have less oversight. Then again, Milwaukee County contains within its borders about 16 percent of the state's entire population. And while there are very wealthy pockets in the county, there's also rampant poverty and the usual array of major metropolitan issues that no other locality in the state must face.
The main rap against the Milwaukee County Board, if you can believe it, is that supervisors too often micromanage county operations and are too slow to adopt change. But these are obvious canards. In the first place, Milwaukee County government and the operations it oversees are relatively vast and complex -- an international airport, a nationally respected museums, a renowned zoo and park system, social welfare programs and of course much more.
In the second place, democracy is by its nature messy. County Executive Abele surely could get more done more quickly if the county board that must approve his budget and operations were reduced to only a shadow of its current self. But that leads the county strongly in the direction of one-person rule -- noting, of course, that this elected one person increasingly tends to be in the pocket of deep-pocket corporate interests.
The amazing thing in this day and age of American democracy is that very Republican-led legislatures like Wisconsin's are not only very messy but far more authoritarian than anything the Milwaukee County Board has attempted. Indeed, the state legislature's interest in dictating to local governments and taking power away from them is in itself a far more disturbing development.
In that light, you can assign the assault on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to the same game plan that includes emergency manager laws, anti-union bills, interference in local home-rule provisions that, in Wisconsin, are supposed to be constitutionally secure, fooling with electoral vote assignments for partisan political advantage and much more.
It is, don't forget, a Republican game plan. Which means it tends to be entirely inconsistent with its own stated rationale. Republicans want to devolve local power because the result is to redistribute that power to themselves and the special interests they exclusively represent.
Don't let them.