The reason for local control in a democracy is simple: Citizens in their local communities know what’s best for them, and the local officials they elect are so close to them in everyday interactions that the concerns of the citizens can’t be ignored.
In Wisconsin, the enshrinement of local democracy was part of the Progressive Movement’s agenda. The Legislature passed a home rule bill in 1911, and it was signed into law by Gov. Francis McGovern, who was a La Follette Republican. A year later, however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw the law out, so advocates of home rule set about amending the Wisconsin Constitution, which they achieved in 1924. The home rule provision, in Article XI, section 3, states: “Cities and villages organized pursuant to state law may determine their local affairs and government, subject only to this constitution and to such enactments of the legislature of statewide concern as with uniformity shall affect every city or every village.”
Courts have limited this power over the last 94 years, as have governors and legislatures.
Take Jim Doyle, for instance. He signed two disastrous bills that encroached on local control. The first, in 2003, limited the ability of local governments to ban factory farms. And the second, just a year later, prohibited local governments from raising the minimum wage above the level set by the state. That’s why we still have a paltry $7.25 minimum wage all across Wisconsin.
But Gov. Scott Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have taken the assault on local democracy to new and dangerous heights.
They’ve passed more than 160 bills that interfere with local self-government — and this from the political party that championed local control!
Here are some of the ways they’ve curtailed local democracy:
• They prohibited local governments from requiring employers to offer paid sick leave, overturning a path-breaking Milwaukee ordinance.
• They passed numerous anti-labor laws that prohibit local governments from negotiating benefits (Act 10) with unions, from requiring prevailing wages on contracts, and, most recently, from establishing higher employment benefits or living wages on local government contracts.
• They passed a slew of pro-landlord bills, including one this year that prohibits local governments from inspecting properties for their first eight years and from re-inspecting properties that had problems but were fixed, for another five years.
• They passed a law prohibiting local governments from imposing their own insurance requirements on pipeline companies.
• They passed a law curbing local control over the siting of cell phone towers.
• They passed a law prohibiting local governments from forcing banks to sell “zombie” properties in a timely fashion.
•They passed a law prohibiting local governments from enacting tougher shoreland zoning laws than the state.
• They passed a law prohibiting communities from banning or restricting bow and arrow and crossbow hunting.
• They even passed a law prohibiting local governments from using their own workforce on construction jobs over $100,000 or working cooperatively with other local governments, as in sharing heavy equipment on projects over $100,000.
So why has there been this soup-to-nuts assault on local control from the Republican Party, which used to be the party of local control but is now, as former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director and current candidate for governor Mike McCabe says, the party that controls the locals?
Because, in a fundamental way, Walker, Fitzgerald, and Vos do not run Wisconsin. They are water boys for the people and groups that actually run Wisconsin.
Chief among them:
• Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which has spent about $20 million to keep them in power.
• The Koch brothers and their group Americans for Prosperity, which has spent almost $6 million to keep them in power.
• Betsy DeVos’ school privatization group, American Federation for Children, which has spent $5 million to keep them in power.
And there are other heavyweights:
• The Dairy Business Association.
• The Wisconsin Realtors Association.
• The NRA.
And a handful of powerful individuals, such as Richard Uihlein, who spent almost $400,000 on Republican candidates in Wisconsin over the last 10 years, and who gave $5 million to Walker’s presidential PAC and is now spending millions more to take out Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
And Diane Hendricks, who has given Walker more than $500,000 and gave $5 million to his presidential PAC. You remember Diane Hendricks, don’t you? The richest woman in Wisconsin, the head of ABC Supply in Beloit, she went up to Walker right after he got elected and asked him, “When are you going to turn Wisconsin into a red state? When are you going to turn Wisconsin into a right to work state?”
And Walker responded, infamously, “First, we’re going to divide and conquer.” And that’s what he did.
He’s been a dutiful servant to Diane Hendricks and the Koch brothers and WMC.
These powerful people and groups don’t like democracy; it interferes with their ability to maximize profits. So they do what they can to limit democracy. And it’s easier — it’s more efficient — to buy up the governor and the Legislature than it is to buy up every single local governmental body.
That’s how the Republicans’ devotion to local control fell by the wayside.
Matt Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.