Republicans’ hatred for Milwaukee has reached an irrational extreme

Legislators are leveraging the shared-revenue crisis to dominate and possibly crush the Wisconsin right’s favorite punching bag.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Legislators are leveraging the shared-revenue crisis to dominate and possibly crush the Wisconsin right’s favorite punching bag.

Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Mark Baden, who’s been a meteorologist at Milwaukee TV station WISN for 26 years, stirred the hornet’s nest on Twitter last week. The controversial tweet: “I do not understand the hate for the city of Milwaukee especially from people that live in Wisconsin.”

“There is so much that is great about the city,” Baden continues. “Is it perfect? No. But how does disparaging Milwaukee help move the city forward?”

Baden got some snarky replies from the right, arguing “crime” and “focus on the weather.” From the left, “racism” and “right-wing talk radio,” which are accurate but not the whole story. Aside from the snark and Milwaukee boosterism, there were some thoughtful responses examining what the city means in broader state politics and who benefits from maligning it. 

It’s one of those questions that at first seems really obvious, but the more you think about it, the more unhinged it really is. Despite its issues, Milwaukee has been subsidizing the rest of the state. During a May 17 Assembly hearing, Rep. Darrin Madison (D-Milwaukee) pointed out the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County have contributed $400 million over the last decade and received only $0.27 out of every dollar in return. Imagine what the city could do with a full dollar? Hell, even $0.50. 

On top of this there’s the inhumanity of refusing to fund lead pipe removal in budget after budget because it would disproportionately benefit Milwaukee (which is home to two-thirds of all lead-poisoned children in Wisconsin). And the inanity of having to hear Republicans gripe about a goddamn streetcar that actually reduces traffic congestion, and spurs development. A full expansion of the streetcar would cost at least $300 million less than another lane on three miles of highway. And let’s not even talk about how we could have had high-speed rail all across the state by now. 

If there’s any doubt whether Milwaukee is unfairly maligned in state politics, the ongoing negotiations for an increase in shared revenue should wipe that out. Shared revenue is money that comes into the state’s coffers via various taxes and fees and is supposed to be, well, shared, with counties and municipalities. It’s been touted as a balance and justification for the state’s strict levy limits and not allowing local sales taxes. 

But that argument only works if shared revenue keeps up with the cost of providing services. It has not; instead it has remained flat, and in some years failed to even keep up with inflation. Dale Knapp, director of research and analytics at the Wisconsin Counties Association, told The Cap Times last week that shared revenue covered one-third of local governments’ spending during the 1980s. Today, Knapp went on to explain, it only covers 11% of municipal budgets, and that’s even with the draconian cuts communities across the state have made to basic services. 

The only reason the GOP-led legislature is doing anything about shared revenue is probably because the problem finally spread to their own backyards, as evidenced by them revising Gov. Tony Evers’ initial proposal to advantage smaller communities, AKA the Republican base. Phil Rocco, associate professor of political science at Marquette University, wrote for The Recombobulation Area that in addition to cutting out almost half the total shared revenue funds that Evers wants to allocate, the GOP’s plan could give communities of 5,000 or fewer residents a 1,000% increase in shared revenue, while larger municipalities would receive only marginal gains. In other words: less money overall, funneled mostly to Republicans’ base to keep them happy as they ignore the sound of Wisconsin’s cities collapsing.

That funding also comes with a list of poison pills for Milwaukee and Milwaukee only:

  • The city and county would not be able to approve new expenditures without a two-thirds vote from the city council or county board. 
  • Contributions to nonprofits and arts organizations capped at 5%.
  • Mandatory police at Milwaukee Public Schools. 
  • No diversity, equity, and inclusion positions.
  • No tax levy spending on Milwaukee’s streetcar.
  • Strips power from the Police and Fire Commission.

I bet Milwaukee’s Democratic leaders feel foolish for abjectly rolling over to make way for the 2024 Republican National Convention. Why did they think any action could temper the GOP’s aggression against the city and county, when that aggression has nothing to do with anything the city or county actually did?

What’s possibly most galling about all of this is that the state has squeezed and squeezed its largest city, tied unreasonable demands to a modicum of relief, and when people push back, Senate President Chris Kapenga writes that Milwaukee “must learn from its own bad decisions.” 

The real question is, when will Kapenga and the rest of the GOP learn from theirs? GOP legislators and former Gov. Scott Walker have spent over a decade gunning for Milwaukee to fail. Just as the United States has spent over a century gunning for all Black and brown, urban, Democratic-voting communities to fail. 

If you don’t want to live in Milwaukee or visit Milwaukee, fine. Don’t. But when Milwaukee wins, the entire state wins. What do they think is going to happen to the rest of the state if it fails?

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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