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Michigan-style financial bill may still be in the works for Wisconsin
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The attention this issue has received both in Wisconsin and around the nation is encouraging.
The attention this issue has received both in Wisconsin and around the nation is encouraging.

After "financial martial law" was enacted in Michigan in the midst of the Wisconsin protests over Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union agenda, questions started bubbling as to whether or not similar legislation was in the works for the Badger State. The Michigan law allows the state's governor to declare a "financial emergency" in municipalities that fail a "financial stress test," permitting the appointment of "emergency managers" who are given vast powers to cancel union contracts, eliminate public services, sell off public assets, and dismiss elected officials. Speculation ended on Monday, when an individual at Foley & Lardner confirmed that the firm was drafting similar legislation here.

Interest in this prospect was sparked a week ago when Ed Garvey suggested that "financial martial law" legislation akin to Michigan's is on its way to Wisconsin. The former gubernatorial candidate wrote that a bill is currently being drafted by attorneys at the Foley & Lardner law firm, in collaboration with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the governor and his allies. Last Saturday, Forbes' Rick Ungar reported on the story, noting that this information was provided by an anonymous "highly placed GOP source."

Rampant speculation followed through the weekend, and Walker appeared on Charlie Sykes' radio talk show Monday morning to deny that his administration was working on such legislation. "No truth to it whatsoever. Absolutely a bogus story," claimed the governor on the air. "There's nobody on my staff, nobody in my administration, I'm certainly not working on anything remotely close to that."

Gov. Walker's remarks are disingenuous at best. Though his staff may not be working directly on such legislation, he has expressed interest in similar policies dating back to his tenure as Milwaukee County executive. The governor also maintains many longstanding political relationships with organizations and individuals currently advocating policies to usurp municipal control, starting with a campaign in Milwaukee.

The Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) recently launched the Make It Your Milwaukee County campaign, which describes itself as a "coalition" dedicated to "real reform" for the county government. It consists of three initiatives, the first to "Create a Statewide 'Local Government Flexibility Toolkit.'" Step one: "Developing a statewide fiscal stress test through the State Department of Revenue to help local governments maintain fiscal health." Step two: "Provide local governments with greater flexibility by ensuring that as labor contracts are crafted, they account for a broader range of considerations, including the fiscal challenges facing municipalities and counties."

Here's some background on the campaign. In January 2010, GMC published a study study (PDF) titled "Should It Stay or Should It Go" that explored "the potential for structural reform in Milwaukee County government," including fiscal stress tests, increased government transparency, and even the possibility of eliminating county government entirely, excepting emergency services. Walker, at that point running for governor but still Milwaukee County executive, affirmed the study and its conclusions.

The governor's relationship with this campaign to devolve government goes far beyond rhetorical support, though. The chair of the GMC is Michael Grebe, a longtime Republican operative who chaired Walker's 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Grebe is also a director of the right-wing Bradley Foundation, and a former partner and CEO at Foley & Lardner. Just down the chain of authority at the GMC is "director of policy" Brian Schupper, who also serves as the "policy director" of a lobbying group named Smart Government, Inc. This organization shares the same address (301 W. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee) as the GMC.

Smart Government Inc. is described in the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board lobbyists registry as focused on "public affairs advocacy related to reforming local government." Three lobbyists are listed as authorized for the organization -- each based out of the Foley & Lardner office in Madison. Along with various well-known Wisconsin-based corporations and nonprofits, they are also registered to represent Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC, which became a central element in objections to Walker's agenda after its Madison office was revealed 10 days into the Capitol protests.

On Monday, April 18, a source at Foley & Lardner confirmed that the firm is indeed drafting municipal governance legislation that was influenced by the GMC study, and has similarities to the Michigan law.

This source said that this draft legislation is not as punitive as the Michigan law, would not include the "martial law" language, and emphasizes "transparent government." Rather, it would focus on "public transparency" and "fiscal stress tests" for the state to use as guidelines to gauge "open fiscal practices." When pressed in regard to the January 2010 study commissioned by the GMC, and its exploration of dismantling the Milwaukee County government, this person stated that "people have backed away" from this type of action. No other specifics were disclosed, but the source did state that "when the legislation is introduced," the public would then be able to debate its merits.

On Wednesday, April 20, the GMC released a statement about the Make It Your Milwaukee County initiative, providing a little more detail about the campaign. "The proposed stress test would solely focus on encouraging greater openness and transparency in the operation of local government," said GMC president Julia Taylor. "It would rely on information municipalities already provide to the Department of Revenue and require the state to publish this information online in an easily understandable format for public review."

Taylor denied support for Michigan-style martial law: "Contrary to the rumors that circulated this week, the Initiative does not support providing the state with the ability to takeover cities and other entities." Similar assertions were made via email from the initiative's PR firm in response to questions raised by Milwaukee Magazine.

While supporters of such legislation in Wisconsin may now be stepping back from the idea of eliminating the Milwaukee County government, the idea has long had Walker's backing. In a story about a gubernatorial debate last Oct. 15, The Capital Times quoted the then-Milwaukee County executive as having previously stated: "There is no need to have a county government, which is one way to get out of this without the 'b' word." And yesterday, the progressive Think Progress blog released a video of Walker speaking to a GMC meeting in 2009, saying, "it's probably time for us to seriously consider looking at the possibility of eliminating county government, and replacing it with something better."

The attention this issue has received both in Wisconsin and around the nation is encouraging. But there is a disturbing dynamic to how potential legislation in this state has been addressed by its erstwhile supporters. Was an element of "fiscal martial law" originally a part of the bill being drafted at Foley & Lardner, only to be removed subsequent to all the publicity of the last week? Are more punitive measures stripping local control still on the table, ready to be slipped in as public attention recedes? What is the objective of Smart Government Inc., and what relationship might it have with Koch Companies Public Sector? More questions are raised by Forbes' Ungar in a follow-up report exploring Walker's relationship with the GMC and his previous positions on the issue.

This is not the end of the story -- this is the alarm sounding. Wisconsin has laws that require local government transparency, and the system works if those in charge act openly and honestly. Unfortunately, we know the Walker administration does not do business this way.

Gov. Walker must tell the truth about what he knows about such legislation being drafted by a private lobbying group, not merely within the confines of his staff or administration. Republican legislators must disclose what they know about any such bill, and live up to their party's rhetoric advocating "less-intrusive government" and more local control. Finally, the people of Wisconsin must remain engaged and informed about the activities of their elected officials, and vote accordingly.

We slept during the election last year, and now we must remain awake and vigilant. We are not Michigan, we are Wisconsin.

Scott Wittkopf is a native Wisconsinite and longtime resident of the Milwaukee and Madison areas who recently relocated to Chicago, and longs to return to his home state. He publishes bdgrdemocracy, and initial reports informing this op-ed were published here and here.

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