The Assault on Local Democracy in Wisconsin

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

April 20, 2018

(This is a rough transcript of a presentation that Matt gave on April 24, 2018, in Viroqua, sponsored by the Vernon County Democrats.)

Broken Main Street Sign

It’s great to be back in Viroqua; it was a beautiful drive up. Glad you didn’t schedule me 10 days ago, when you had all that snow.

I’m honored to be on this panel with Dennis Brault, Vernon County Chair, and Tara Johnson, La Crosse County Chair. I’ve never been elected to anything, so this is humbling.

It’s also humbling to speak to you about the assault on local democracy, since you Vernon County Dems just put out a terrific paper on this issue, and you know more about it than I do, I’m sure.

But here’s what I know.

Philosophically, 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 Governor 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.

It’s not just Walker, Fitzgerald, and Vos.

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 Walker and Fitzgerald and 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 (Act10) with unions, or from requiring prevailing wages on contracts, or, 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 8 years and from re-inspecting properties that had problems but fixed them, for another 5 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.

My favorite, though, is this one: They passed a law prohibiting communities from regulating the material that restaurants use for take-out. It said that local governments can’t ban the use of plastic bags, plastic containers, or specific kinds of coffee cup sleeves. Yep, they dug that far down the food chain to make sure that local governments can’t do what’s right for our environment.

So why has there been this soup-to-nuts assault on local control from the Republican Party that used to be the party of local control but is now, as 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:

WMC, 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’s 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, like:

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 who is now spending a cajillion dollars to take out 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 was 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 government body.

We are seeing in Wisconsin, and we are seeing nationally, this battle between self-government and corporate government.

At the moment, in Walker’s Wisconsin and in Trump’s Washington, corporate government is winning.

And it just won a victory today in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that foreign corporations can’t be sued for human rights violations.

This is an old struggle, my friends.

As Thomas Jefferson warned us, 200 years ago: “We must crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations.”

But they’re not in their cribs any longer.

They’re fully grown now; in fact, they’re giant monsters trampling all over our democracy.

Fighting Bob La Follette tangled with these monsters 100 years ago. Corporate dominance over our democracy was his overriding concern.

And he’d be appalled today, but maybe not surprised, to see corporations with the upper hand.

Shortly before he died, he wrote: “Reaction is in the saddle, and it will ride with whip and spur.”

But La Follette never gave up, and he knew the answer to this problem.

He said: “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

And that’s we need.

We need more democracy nationally.

We need more democracy right here in Wisconsin.

And we need more local democracy.

And we need it now!

WDC Executive Director Matthew Rothschild
Matthew Rothschild
WDC Executive Director

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