Milwaukee County Reform Bill Gains Momentum

One County Supervisor Supports Assembly Bill 85 but Asks for Changes

April 16, 2013

by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Defenders of the Milwaukee County Board against reform by the state legislature had a bad week last week. The state Assembly Committee on Government Operations and State Licensing voted 6-3 to approve Assembly Bill 85, the reform bill that would cause a referendum in Milwaukee County on whether the County Board members should be full-time or part-time elected officials.

Additional momentum was given to the reform effort when Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist and blogger Aaron Rodriguez broke the news the county board is negotiating with District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). State legislators were upset to learn that County Board Chairman Marina Dimitrijevic misled the legislature regarding the labor negotiations.

Senate President Mike Ellis, one of the louder voices in the legislature defending “local control,” was particularly offended. In a pointed letter to Dimitrijevic, Ellis wrote,

“As President of the Wisconsin State Senate, I must stress in the strongest possible terms that the Legislature would not look favorably on these negotiations. Milwaukee County has many other difficulties not related to legislative actions. Advancing an agenda in violation of state law, against the advice of county and outside legal counsel is unwise at best. I assure that, if true, I will personally view these negotiations as an insult to the Wisconsin legislature and the voters that elected us.”

State Senator Alberta Darling, who represents parts of northern Milwaukee County, was even more direct in making the connection. She told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “It’s going to get the attention of a lot more people in the Senate who were looking at this as a local control issue.”

One County Supervisor watching the legislature’s reaction to the latest news is Deanna Alexander who represents part of northwest Milwaukee County. Alexander is a supporter of AB 85, but in an interview Sunday she was still hopeful some changes will be made to the bill before it’s passed by both houses and sent to the governor for his signature.

“The full Assembly and the Senate jointly will have to really balance everything that’s going on and do what any good policy maker is supposed to do. Take into account all of the information available and make the best decisions using the tools available to them. I hope that will result in an amended AB 85 passing.”

Alexander was at the center of the labor union negotiation storm when she said that she was unable to talk about the negotiations due to a “gag order.” When I suggested to her that such a “gag order” was not legally binding on her, she said she had heard that from other sources as well. However, she said she was still bound by the county’s ethics rules not to discuss what happened in closed session, and so she said she would remain silent on the labor negotiations for now.

But when it comes to AB 85, Alexander has been critical of how the county lobbyists are lobbying the legislature against the bill even though they have not been expressly authorized to do so. She said in testimony at the Assembly public hearing on the bill,

“Since everyone had different opinions about who should control and direct the County’s lobbyists, who have been very active in Madison on Assembly Bill 85, I thought it was worth mentioning that they had not been properly authorized by either the County Board or the County Executive to use tax dollars to lobby against the reform measure,” said Alexander.

The main concern Alexander has with the bill as it is written is that even if the referendum in Milwaukee County to make the Board part-time fails, the budget cap component of the bill would force Milwaukee County to make the Board part-time anyway. While she’s confident that a referendum would pass, she wants the referendum to be more than a “show piece.”

“Even if the citizens on that referendum said, ‘No, do not cap their salaries,’ we would be forced to cap our salaries anyway despite a referendum saying the opposite.”

“I hear even from constituents who really do want to see reform and who will vote in favor of the referendum, they kind of say, ‘why bother voting on it because it’s going to happen anyway. It would speak volumes to this local control issue by making sure it is legitimate local control by really giving citizens that choice.”

Another issue of concern with the bill is the length of the county supervisors’ terms in office. Milwaukee County has four-year terms while the rest of the county board members in the state have two-year terms. The bill would reduce Milwaukee County Supervisors to two-year terms.

When she testified at a state assembly public hearing, Alexander told committee members that she would like the terms kept to four years, or only reduced to three years, and asked them to consider making the longer terms statewide.

In the interview, she said, “A lot of the complaints that people have had about Milwaukee County governance are related to suppositions that some elected officials tied to unions, or tied to the GMC, or tied to special interest groups. But if the citizens really wanted people to just come out of the woodwork and say, ‘I’d be happy to serve,’ why make it more difficult for them to get into office? And I know that representative government on the legislative level needs to get close to the citizens, but I don’t think that means we have to spend every other year in a campaign.”

Alexander said she spent “six or seven thousand dollars” of her own money to get elected, and she said that having to raise that kind of money every two years puts the supervisor in a “precarious” situation.

Alexander said some of her constituents also were concerned about a provision in AB 85 that would prevent “double-dipping.” She wants that provision to allow for county worker retirees to be able to work part-time for the county without benefits when needed without worrying about possible penalties.

She was also concerned that setting the county board’s budget as a percentage of the tax levy, 0.4%, would be a disincentive to the county board considering lower taxes. Supervisors would be reluctant to cut the tax levy if the cut meant that their own budget would also be cut accordingly.

The slim possibility that legislators would believe the Milwaukee County Board would ever consider a lower tax levy probably received a fatal blow last week. Still, Alexander is hopeful that the legislators will take her concerns seriously. When the state senate takes up the bill, she plans on returning to Madison to testify at that public hearing.

“The most important thing is that if we’re going to bother having a referendum, let’s make sure the people know that whatever they decide, then that’s what will happen.”

But will the legislature listen at this point?

“I think that if Mike Ellis and I had a chance to talk, he would see me more as a whistleblower that deserves credit for being willing to talk about what is going on here rather than being firm in solidarity with what the board wants.”