In tandem with Lake Michigan’s rising waters, Wisconsin presently sees record high-water marks reached for incompetent government. Nowhere is this embodied more than with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, the leader of our gerrymandered state Assembly. Within a short decade, Vos and the Republican Party flipped Wisconsin’s reputation for ultra-clean, forward looking government in the tradition of Scandinavia, to rendering Wisconsin a low-wage state from which our young people flee.
The situation would be bad enough if it were limited to the mismanagement of the state, but the state’s misrule extends to preventing effective local governance. And, nowhere is this more so than with the state GOP’s war on Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s troubles resulting from four decades of de-industrialization are well-known. Yet, it is also a city on the mend. Recent years have seen Milwaukee add more than 3,000 new housing units annually. Who is coming and why? Despite some working-class people leaving in recent years, enabled by the GOP overturning Milwaukee laws requiring city employees to live in the city, Milwaukee nonetheless has seen an influx of affluent retirees and young professionals coming to enjoy urban amenities in the arts, restaurants and an impressive lakefront. All these advantages have been recently cataloged in recent stories in The New York Times, The Atlantic and other national outlets pointing to Milwaukee as a must-visit city.
These gains have been sustained in spite of the Wisconsin’s legislative bodies to check Milwaukee’s progress. The GOP rejected the return of $800 million in Wisconsin dollars from Washington for high-speed rail connecting Milwaukee to a future Chicago-to-Twin Cities economic corridor. Republicans also kept hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue growth Milwaukee County has sent the state following the 2008 financial crash, redirecting it to subsidies for favored GOP special interests. This redirecting of Milwaukee’s tax dollars either back to Washington or to Republican districts would be bad enough if limited to this. But, it also extends to halting Milwaukee Country from increasing revenues to pay for amenities that make Milwaukee a destination city.
This October, Vos declared he might block Milwaukee County from implementing a small sales tax increase. The reason? Milwaukee’s investment in a tram system. Before you cue the laugh track (and I get why, given the roughly $2 billion Vos rejected the return of from Washington, along with the Foxconn fiasco, which continues to generate national press featuring the deal as the most expensive failed state subsidy debacle in U.S. history), let’s look at the Milwaukee tram. The project brought tens of millions of dollars in federal money to Milwaukee. Ridership has exceeded projections. Property values along the streetcar route have soared, bringing in even more tax revenue. The tram is supported by local businesses. Compare this with Republican "spending priorities" of dumping billions of dollars in subsidies on a Taiwanese company with a long record of breaking promises, polluting and bad labor relations that has now also taken Wisconsin "for a ride."
To Vos: First, you should return the revenue growth to Milwaukee County that you have been misdirecting elsewhere for nearly a decade. Second, given Milwaukee’s successes (and the state’s failures) you might wish to learn from a model that is working, rather than failing to learn from the one you created which is pushing people to leave our state.
Jeffrey Sommers is a proud Wisconsinite and visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His book on austerity in the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson) is titled "The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model."
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