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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Destroying the County

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Ever since Scott Walker became Milwaukee County executive in 2002, he has been systematically working to destroy county government.

That is not a political attack. It is a description of Walker’s actual political objective that, for some reason, most of the media failed to notice. For years, I’ve called Walker the most radical politician in public office.

Walker has often been a guest on my weekday radio show, “The Morning Magazine” on 1290 WMCS-AM. I’ve asked him directly if destroying county government was his ultimate goal. His answer was always the same: Walker said many functions of county government could be performed better by others, but he wasn’t ready to call for the end of county government—yet.

Apparently, he’s ready now.

Campaigning for the Republican nomination for governor, having done little to dig Milwaukee County out of a long-term economic crisis, Walker has proposed eliminating county government and turning its functions over to the state, local municipalities and regional boards.

Walker’s latest suggestion came in response to a narrower and more personal proposal from Milwaukee County Board Chairman Lee Holloway. Holloway simply proposed eliminating the position of Milwaukee County executive.

With the county executive and the county board engaged in prolonged mud wrestling, the media treated Walker’s proposal as tit-for-tat. But anyone who has paid attention to what Walker has been up to in Milwaukee County would realize he is serious.

Since taking office, Walker has proposed systematically dismantling county government. Walker suggested turning over the county parks system and transit system to regional authorities, selling the airport and privatizing almost everything else county employees do.

By practicing selective incompetence, Walker even succeeded in getting the state to take over management of the county’s public assistance programs, including food stamps and medical and income assistance.

When a county executive is campaigning for governor to run all of the programs of the state, you would think he wouldn’t want his county’s public assistance programs taken away from him due to a “sustained inability to successfully provide services” to poor and working families.

But Walker is happy to have someone else take over anything the county is supposed to do. Walker’s biggest objection was that the state provided only top management and local supervisors to clean up his poorly run programs. The state continued to use county employees to do most of the work, while Walker wanted to give away the entire county responsibility to provide assistance to its poor and working-class citizens.

Walker previously shocked other government officials by announcing that he had no intention of applying for federal stimulus funds to provide jobs in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

Only after the county board went after federal stimulus funds on its own did Walker boast that stimulus funds would help sustain the county’s transit system. And that came after Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a county transit authority that would have had the power to levy a voter-approved sales tax to fund buses—a veto that Walker supported.

Consider the Consequences

So if Walker, an anti-government, right-wing conservative, is serious about destroying the entire level of county government, we need to consider the consequences. This is especially true if Walker has any chance of being elected to the office of governor, where he might actually be able to put his radical ideas into practice.

Do we really need county government? Many of the functions of the county involve managing programs and services that receive state or federal funding and are required to operate under outside guidelines. Why not just cut out the middleman?

One of the most powerful arguments against running programs for the citizens of Milwaukee County out of Madison was the ugly treatment Milwaukee received in the recent state budget.

There is strong resentment against Milwaukee in Madison not only from rural legislators, but also from government departments that should be more sympathetic to the multiple problems facing the state’s largest repository of urban poverty and disadvantaged racial minorities.

Madison is a mostly white, reputedly liberal community dominated by the ivory tower industries of state government and higher education. The distance between the Madison bubble and urban Milwaukee is a whole lot farther than 80 miles.

Even a Democratic governor who presumably cares about urban problems and people of color vetoed a long list of budget provisions that could have relieved disparities in employment, transit, public safety and incarceration that have greater impact on Milwaukee than anywhere else.

Imagine how bad it would be if we had a right-wing Republican governor who didn’t care about appealing to urban voters.

There is no guarantee that even locally elected officials will be sensitive to the needs of Milwaukee County, as Walker himself has demonstrated repeatedly.

But if county government is destroyed, there will be even less chance those administering its programs from Madison will have a clue about the real problems of the state’s largest metropolitan area.