Rumors have been circulating about a little-known initiative to subject Wisconsin local governments to "stress tests" and other new constraints. Many believe the proposal resembles the "martial law" bill that was recently passed in Michigan, which allows the state government to dissolve local governments in a "fiscal emergency," and worry that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or his friends in the legislature could be cooking up a similar plan.
Rick Ungar of Forbes wrote that:
Walker is said to be preparing a plan that would allow him to force local governments to submit to a financial stress test with an eye towards permitting the governor to take over municipalities that fail to meet with Walker's approval. According to the reports, should a locality's financial position come up short, the Walker legislation would empower the governor to insert a financial manager of his choosing into local government with the ability to cancel union contracts, push aside duly elected local government officials and school board members and take control of Wisconsin cities and towns whenever he sees fit to do so. Such a law would additionally give Walker unchallenged power to end municipal services of which he disapproves, including safety net assistance to those in need.
The law in Michigan, which was put in effect for the first time in Benton Harbor, gives sweeping authority to a governor-appointed emergency financial manager for towns that have been subject to a stress test and declared to be in a state of "financial emergency." In Benton Harbor, the newly-appointed manager has taken all decision-making power away from the city's executive board and committees.
Greater Milwaukee Committee
Garvey's blog pointed to the activities of Michael Grebe and the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC). The GMC recently released a study and unveiled a new website that call for stress testing municipalities, "streamlining" the county government, creating a new elected uber-comptroller position, more "flexibility" with labor contracts, the consolidation of services across municipal lines and changes to health care and pension plans. The website for Make it Your Milwaukee outlines a "Statewide Local Government Flexibility Toolkit" with some language that seems to echo a similar toolkit produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Michael Grebe is the Chair of GMC. He also Chaired Scott Walker's gubernatorial campaign. He has been instrumental in furthering the conservative agenda in Wisconsin and nationally. He is also the former CEO of Foley & Lardner, the state's largest law firm. The popular blog
picked up Garvey's story and dug deeper into the web of ties between Grebe, Foley & Lardner, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and even the Koch brothers.
In response to the coverage, GMC staff released a statement: "contrary to the rumors that circulated this week, the Initiative does not support providing the state with the ability to takeover cities and other entities."
But Ed Garvey puts it plainly: what is the point of doing a stress test if you are not then going to take actions based upon the test?
"What is the point? Who designs it and what is this test for? And what does transparency even mean?," said Garvey pointing out that a local government's finances are a matter of public record. "None of this is out of the blue though. It seems to me that what Walker, Kasich, Snyder, Christie are all doing is creating centralized power in the governor's office where they can do whatever the hell they want to do."
These governors have all introduced legislation to erode the rights of workers and curtail other democratic freedoms. They are all using the same playbook if not identical plays.
Walker Denies Legislation in the Works
Gov. Walker went on Milwaukee's WTMJ-AM Charlie Sykes show to say that it was "absolutely false" to say that legislation was in the works. However, a PR firm representing Foley & Lardner told CMD in a conversation about the GMC intitative, that the firm is "working on developing recommendations for legislation" right now. The firm could be working for any number of Republican leaders or advocacy groups.
Whether we are to believe Walker or not, it is worth taking a look at what he has already proposed to consolidate power and gut small 'd' democratic control.
In his budget and collective bargaining bill, the Governor works hard to take away power from local governments and government agencies and consolidate it in his office. He takes away the ability of cities, counties and school boards to collectively bargain with their employees; he takes away the ability of towns to set their own budget limits; he appoints three dozen new political apparatchiks and czars across state government; and he wants to do away with an elected State Treasurer and Secretary of State.
On schools, Walker takes away local control over charter schools and places it into the hands of a board. His budget mandates a 5.5 percent cut in per-pupil local education spending. No school district will be permitted to maintain its current level of property tax-based funding for education or be able to increase that tax to offset state cuts. He overrides local control on windfarms and wetlands, making it harder for local communities to create jobs or protect the environment. And let's not forget Assembly Bill 7, which Wisconsin Common Cause calls "the most restrictive voter identification law in the nation."
Whether a "fiscal emergency bill" is introduced in Wisconsin or a weaker version that focuses on stress tests combined with comptrollers on steroids, the erosion of local control and baseline democracy is well underway in Wisconsin and the charge is being led by the Republican party -- the formerly-ardent champions of all things local.