Since consolidating control of state government in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature have enacted a series of laws that upend a bedrock of their party’s conservatism: the principle of local control.
The GOP has wrested from local governments control of cellphone tower siting, shoreland zoning restrictions, landlord-tenant regulations, public employee residency requirements, family medical leave rules for private companies and large soft drink bans, among other things.
It instituted a statewide voucher program opposed by many school boards and has kept tight property tax caps on school districts and municipalities. Recent controversial proposals would limit local control of charter schools and frac sand mining.
“Many (municipal leaders) will tell you how terrible it is and how it’s the worst they’ve ever seen,” said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. “What tends to happen is that cities and villages get pre-empted or run over particularly when one party controls both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.”
Thompson noted that the recent trend began when Gov. Jim Doyle and the Democrat-controlled Legislature required municipalities to maintain funding levels for public safety employees. They also passed a statewide public smoking ban some local officials opposed. But the trend has accelerated under Republican leadership.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said “legislators always take into account local feedback when developing bills,” including specific bill language.
“The concerns of municipalities are carefully considered before anything is given a vote on the Senate floor,” Fitzgerald said. “I am confident that the bills passed this session have struck an agreeable balance between protecting local control and protecting taxpayers.”
The latest and perhaps most disconcerting example for many local officials is a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Tiffany,
R-Hazelhurst, that would limit a municipality’s ability to regulate certain aspects of frac sand mining operations, such as blasting, damage to highways, and air and water quality.
Tiffany said the bill came in response to a 2012 state Supreme Court case that upheld a Chippewa County town’s ability to regulate mining outside of its zoning authority, which required county approval.
But in response to concerns about the bill, Tiffany said he hopes to make changes. Those should be ready for a committee vote by the end of the year and a full Senate vote early next year.
“Every now and then you get a local unit of government that goes too far in restricting people’s property rights,” Tiffany said. “We’re setting the ground rules so people’s private property rights are balanced with also having local control.”
Walker would like to see the frac sand industry grow in Wisconsin, spokesman Tom Evenson said.
“This industry could put a lot of people to work in Wisconsin, and the governor would like to see the Legislature balance the concerns of local officials and protecting our great natural resources with helping to provide some certainty for the industry,” Evenson said.
Other changes, such as ending residency requirements and the soft drink provision, are meant to protect individual freedoms, Evenson said.
Republicans have long promoted themselves as the party of decentralized government and local control. The traditional Republican philosophy has been that communities ought to define their own identity, said
UW-Madison political science professor emeritus Dennis Dresang.
“But boy, recently, that’s really going out the door,” Dresang said. “What we see from the tea party types and the radical right types is, ‘I’ve got an idea, I’ve got an agenda, and it really ought to apply across the board.’”
Dresang, who has studied state and local politics in Wisconsin for decades, said Walker’s re-election bid could be vulnerable to the local control issue. But he wouldn’t expect Republicans to lose seats in the Legislature over curbing local control because the GOP drew political maps to its advantage.
Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican from Richland Center, said he’s no purist on local control — he was involved in an effort years ago to pre-empt local regulations for pesticide spraying. But on issues such as private school vouchers and charter schools, Republicans aren’t working closely with locally elected school boards.
“The Republican majorities in the Legislature certainly seem to have lost the relationship at the local level, and I think that’s a shame,” Schultz said.
Republicans and conservatives in the state say many of the recent moves to limit local control derive from a different party plank than local control — deregulation.
“Generally government that’s closest to the people is the best, but you also have to balance that with concerns about overregulation,” said Mike Nichols, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank.
Local control is a factor “on an issue-by-issue basis,” said Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield. “There are certain values that the state upholds. If the values aren’t consistent at the local level, there is an opportunity for the state to come in and say these are our principles and they are good.”
The frac sand mining bill struck a nerve, but it also came on the heels of changes to cell tower siting regulations included in the state budget.
Joel Knutson, a town of Crescent board supervisor in Oneida County, said if not for the mining proposal, the cell tower changes would have been the hot topic at last week’s Wisconsin Towns Association annual convention.
The 2013-15 budget created a standard statewide framework for locating cellphone towers and antennas. Previously cities, towns and counties would have discussions with cellular companies about where to locate cell towers, often receiving revenue for placing them on municipal structures such as water towers.
“But to now say you’re out of the conversation entirely is pretty shocking,” Knutson said.
Thompson said the cell tower issue bothers local officials because when citizens complain about a tower going up near their home, they might not understand why they’re being told to contact state government.
He added there’s no doubt that the frac sand mining bill “got stopped in its track because people at the local level got angry.”
“Will there be ramifications? Absolutely yes,” Thompson said. “The balance has been upset. You irritate them enough and you’ll hear from them.”