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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Stick It to Milwaukee II

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One of the great unreported stories in the Milwaukee media about the state budget is how often Gov. Jim Doyle used his veto power to “Stick it to Milwaukee,” as former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson once advocated.

As Doyle was working over the budget sent to him from the Legislature, rumors were again heating up that he might soon be leaving the state to join President Obama’s administration as head of the Peace Corps.

If so, why would Doyle trash an agreement that had strong local support and would stop the deterioration of Milwaukee’s transit system? Was it just to avoid solving a funding crisis facing Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a Republican gubernatorial candidate?

And why did Doyle eviscerate his own rational proposal to reduce wasteful incarceration costs by caving to right-wing critics like Walker and limiting an early release program for nonviolent offenders to those within a year of release?

On the other hand, if Doyle is still planning to run for re-election, why did he intentionally alienate Milwaukee’s African-American representatives and the Legislature’s only Latino by failing to support or gratuitously vetoing programs important to them?

Either Doyle is backing away from progressive policies out of fear of facing a rightwing Republican challenger or he’s settling a few personal scores within the Democratic Party on his way out the door.

In the meantime, the big losers were the people of Milwaukee who saw funds disappear that could have helped improve employment, transportation and public safety.

Doyle stunned local leaders by vetoing a Milwaukee Transit Authority that could have levied a county sales tax of 0.5% for the bus system and 0.15% for public safety.

If Doyle was trying to avoid letting Walker off the hook for the county’s deteriorating transit system, the irony is the county sales tax for transit had the support of just about everybody but Walker.

County voters approved a sales tax for transit, parks and public safety in an advisory referendum that Walker opposed.

Of course, Walker has cleverly built his political career on opposing tax increases, and then counting on somebody else—usually the County Board—to take the political responsibility for raising taxes and providing the necessary funding for the county.

By vetoing the county transit authority, Doyle prevented Walker from having cake without buying any of the ingredients. But he also prevented Milwaukee County residents from having a transportation system with sound financial support and more funds for public safety.

Some of Doyle’s vetoes seemed personal. State Rep. Annette Polly Williams announced publicly she wouldn’t vote for the budget unless more funds were added to deal with the unemployment crisis among African-American males in Milwaukee, estimated to be as high as 57%, possibly the highest in the nation.

Williams ultimately voted for the budget after gaining legislative approval of an amendment that added $2 million (to the original $500,000) for the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board to address the problem. But then one of Doyle’s vetoes slashed the $2 million appropriation and brought the amount back to $500,000.

Mean-spirited Cuts

Besides cutting funds for public safety, Doyle trashed his own common-sense early release program intended to ensure that incarcerated offenders participate in treatment and rehabilitation programs to keep them from resorting to crime when they return to the community.

By limiting early release to those with less than a year to serve, Doyle passed up a chance to help thousands of nonviolent offenders successfully prepare for reentry to the community instead of coming back from prison in worse condition and unemployable.

In a particularly mean-spirited move toward the poor, Doyle vetoed raising outdated income limits set more than 20 years ago to qualify for a public defender.

A defendant charged with a misdemeanor can earn no more than $58.90 a week, have no more than $300 in cash and a car worth no more than $2,000 to get competent representation by a public defender.

Doyle also vetoed a provision that would have limited to six months the amount of time someone on probation, parole or extended supervision could be returned to prison for a technical violation. More people go to prison every year for committing minor technical violations than for committing crimes.

The racial and economic disparities in criminal justice, a deteriorating mass transit system that makes it more difficult for poor folks to connect with jobs, concentrated, massive unemployment— all these are daunting problems for the people in Milwaukee.

Doyle appears to have singled out Milwaukee’s special problems for special attention, but not in any good way. He used veto after veto to slash state assistance for the Milwaukee area’s greatest needs.

It’s an odd way to run for re-election. But somewhere Tommy Thompson must be enjoying “Stick It to Milwaukee II: The Sequel.”

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