Chris Abele Takes Trail Blazed by Scott Walker

By James Wigderson
Special guest perspective for the MacIver Institute

A rather scary assemblage of every special interest in Milwaukee will gather on Halloween for a public hearing on the County budget. They will be the usual assortment of government employees and beneficiaries of public largesse. What will be interesting to watch will be their reaction to the county budget that’s taking shape.

It will be the first budget since Scott Walker was elected governor. Already some of the reviews are in and we’re learning that there is nothing new under the sun. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele should show up at the public hearing in a costume from the Rocky Horror Picture Show singing, “Time Warp.”

“It’s just a jump to the left.”

“And then a step to the right…”

Abele, despite his liberal background, his close ties with city of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and his criticisms of Walker’s reforms at the state level, started the budget the Walker way. He proposed no increase in the county tax levy, despite a $55 million budget gap.
The challenge, then, is to figure out where the budget could be cut without increasing taxes. Not surprisingly, Abele looked to the places where Walker had to look when he was county executive.

Despite criticizing Walker and the Republicans in the state legislature, Abele is proposing using the power given to the county government to change the health benefits for county workers. County workers would only have one health plan and the out-of-pocket costs will go up. Employees will be responsible for 28% of their health insurance costs. The result is a $25 million savings.

Walker was criticized for including in his last budget $12.2 million in reduced employee costs that needed to be negotiated with the unions, despite that this budgeting approach was done elsewhere.  Of course, the county board only attempted to reduce that number rather than eliminate it entirely because even they saw the need to bring benefits under control.

Now Abele is asking county workers to contribute more for their health care costs than what Walker asked for at the state level (12%). Abele is also able to do this without negotiating with the unions, allowing him to include the employee contributions to benefits without criticism. Despite opposing Walker’s budget reforms to collective bargaining, Abele should have instead sent Walker a thank you note.

Interestingly, Walker was criticized for counting savings from county workers in his last budget before they were negotiated. It’s open for question how much Abele will be criticized for including federal funds for transit that haven’t been granted yet.

“Let’s do the Time Warp again…”

Abele is also planning on cutting the county parks program, but he’s going further than Walker did. Where Walker proposed making full-time positions less expensive part-time seasonal positions, Abele now proposes to cut the seasonal positions.

Now when we think of seasonal work, most of us would think a couple of months here and there.  Turns out, that’s not what is really happening in Milwaukee County.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Jason Haas wrote on his blog,

“What is getting little to no attention at all is the proposed $3,472,462 cut to the County Parks System. Look at that again: three million, four-hundred and seventy-two thousand, four-hundred and sixty-two dollars. That’s a big number, and it translates to job cuts for seasonal park workers. As someone testified during the meeting, these ‘seasonal’ workers actually work for ten months of the year with the understanding that they will be laid off and then rehired a month later. These are the people that do much of the basic maintenance services for the parks, such as lawn cutting and litter pickup. As it’s proposed, their hours would be significantly reduced. Think your neighborhood park is in bad shape now? Well, if this budget passed as is, it would get a lot worse.”

If Walker had proposed such a dramatic cut in the number of county parks workers, the protests in Madison might have visited Milwaukee years earlier.  Any minute Meat Loaf should come crashing through the wall on a motorcycle. Instead, as Haas wrote, it’s getting little or no attention at all.

Abele claims in his proposed budget that he can maintain current service levels despite the cuts. In part that’s because Parks and the Highway Division of the Department of Transportation will be sharing some maintenance workers, under Abele’s budget proposal.

I think we’re supposed to throw toast at that idea.

In true Rocky Horror fashion, we should consider firing our squirt guns for this perennial budget item begging to be cut. Abele is proposing again to rid Milwaukee County of the Fish Hatchery, saving  $150,000 annually beginning in 2014.

So for all of the expected shift in direction for Milwaukee County, it turns out that the Walker legacy continues at budget time, Having demonstrated year after year that a zero-increase tax levy could be done, Milwaukee County residents expect it now. Nice to see Abele following through. Now everybody, throw some Scott’s brand toilet paper…