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Wisconsin is forcing local governments to scrounge for basic services

As municipal budgeting grows trickier, Robin Vos deals in cynical “mumbo jumbo.”
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.

As municipal budgeting grows trickier, Robin Vos deals in cynical “mumbo jumbo.”

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

This midterm election a lot of attention was paid, rightly, to Wisconsin’s gubernatorial, US Senate, Congressional, and state legislative races. But there was a whole slate of referenda from school boards and municipalities asking their communities if they could raise property tax levies to pay for basic services. 

Twenty communities across the state had referenda on their Nov. 8 ballots to pay for emergency services, including fire, police, and EMS. Of those, 17 passed, including in Chippewa Falls and the City of Whitewater. According to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, a “staggering” 37 referenda to fund emergency services have been on ballots in 2022. 

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“The fact that we’re going to referendum over and over again means the system of finances is unsustainable,” Jerry Deschane, executive director for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. told Wisconsin Public Radio in November. “Bottom line: the system we use is broken. It needs to be reformulated.”

Don’t tell Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) that. Wisconsin’s budget surplus is now estimated to be a mind-boggling $6.6 billion. Shared revenue, which the state sends to counties and municipalities, has been declining for decades. But for all the emphasis Republicans place on agitating for relief from supposedly onerous property taxes, Vos doesn’t see a problem with property tax payers having to bear the burden of keeping local government running. 

“I think the fact that they’re going to referendum, that’s a good thing,” Vos said at a Wisconsin Policy Forum event earlier this month. “Because it means that every person in the community has an opportunity for that discussion beyond a basic level. So that’s why I’ve never had a problem with the idea of having a referenda to raise property taxes.”

Vos also said that local governments need to be able to pay competitive wages for city employees. But while that comment stole headlines, he also said that “revenue without reform is DOA [dead on arrival].”

“I am waiting for the reform proposal that can match the new revenue, but it almost always focuses on just—’give us the revenue and we’ll figure it out later’—as they create goofy positions inside government as they do all this DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] mumbo jumbo,” Vos said.

Now I doubt Vos was referring to Chippewa Falls, the City of Whitewater, or any of Wisconsin’s approximately 1,250 towns, home to 1.6 million Wisconsinites, when he referred to “DEI mumbo jumbo,” even though those communities are being hit hard by the combination of levy limits and the lack of state aide. 

No, the combination of “DEI” and “reform” signals he is referring to Milwaukee and Madison. Because even though Milwaukee is subsidizing the rest of the state by putting more money into state coffers than it receives, the narrative that urban, diverse, cities are poorly run and fiscally irresponsible continues to be repeated ad nauseam among conservatives. And instead of setting up Milwaukee and Madison to succeed and potentially spread more prosperity throughout the state, the state is kneecapping their potential. 

It’s yet another example of white conservatives (and moderates) cutting off their nose to spite their face. Throughout U.S. history we have seen conservatives block or sabotage programs that would make life better for everyone—universal health care, well-funded public education, affordable higher education, affordable housing, public transit—because God forbid those programs could benefit people of color or—horror of horrors—result in racial integration. 

Because if white people go to the same doctors, attend the same schools, live in the same buildings, and ride the same buses as people of color, how are they supposed to feel racially superior? And whenever a community with a majority of people of color—especially Black people—succeeds, especially if it is more successful than its white neighbors, time and again we see white people burning it to the ground. 

A broader audience learned about “Black Wall Street” in Oklahoma from Watchmen on HBO Max, but what people still need to understand is that there have been “Black Wall Streets” all over America, in different times and different places, and too many of them met the same fate. Now, instead of burning everything into the ground, the tactic is to siphon resources away from Black communities that they earned and deserve to reinvest in their communities. 

For Wisconsin legislators, there’s also the bonus that by making counties and cities dependent on state aid, they’re able to micromanage local politics through the state budget so they can take cheap shots at affordable housing and public transit in the name of “owning the libs.” 

Our state’s current model for funding schools, counties, and municipalities is failing all communities—not just Madison and Milwaukee—and voters time and again show that they want these basic services to be funded. Yet Wisconsin Republicans would rather spend the $6.6 billion surplus on cutting taxes, especially for the “top rates” paid by the wealthiest Wisconsinites. This state could be so much more, if only the Wisconsin GOP would get out of the way.

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