For as long as anyone can remember, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities has butted heads with other lobbying groups representing powerful interests.
"We not only don't see eye to eye, we fight tooth and nail," says Dan Thompson, the league's executive director.
But since 2007, Thompson's group and five others have been seeking common ground: a path out of the state's corrosive fiscal and ideological gridlock.
Wisconsin Way, as the coalition has dubbed itself, is an ambitious experiment born of frustration over how politics is usually played, fear for the state's future, and hope that this isn't how it has to be. It brings together six of the state's most powerful lobby groups: the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Realtors, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the Wisconsin Counties Association, and both the Transportation Development Association and the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association - a.k.a the road-builders lobby.
This month the coalition is taking its second shot at trying to win support for a comprehensive package of proposals to boost the state's economy and resolve its ingrained fiscal woes.
Its previous shot didn't go so well. When Wisconsin Way unveiled the first draft of its "Blueprint for Change" in December 2008, the loudest voices dripped with scorn. Then, as the economy kept tanking and the Legislature grappled with a record-breaking budget deficit, Wisconsin Way put some of its public discussion of the plan on hold and rebooted.
Now the coalition is back, preparing to release its final draft of "Blueprint for Change," a roughly 50-page document that covers an extraordinary range of policy issues, from financing economic development to education to tax policy (see sidebar).
"We're not going to be able to get where we want in Wisconsin without acknowledging that we have systemic problems here, and there's a need for major change and major reform," says Jim Wood, the Madison public relations and lobbying consultant who helped spearhead the Wisconsin Way project. "Our hope is that this document focuses all of us on a better conversation about how we go about developing solutions and approaches that will really take Wisconsin where the public wants to go."
Whatever the merits of the coalition's proposal, it's certainly ambitious - and all the more striking considering the motley crew that gave birth to it. But Thompson says that, despite their disparate backgrounds and interests, when the six groups came together on the Wisconsin Way project, "We all hung our pistols at the door."
In an era of polarized politics suspicious of government and experts, Wisconsin Way holds itself out as an attempt to employ expertise, coalition-building and policy wonkery to bring pragmatism back to governing.
Its organizers say they are making a civic-minded attempt to make government work and shore up the state's long-term fiscal, economic and social health.
"The political environment is so polarized that it's hard to produce solutions," says Wood. "I think the public desire for solutions and for more harmonious or civil political discussion is apparent and very strong, and our hope is that the 'Blueprint for Change' will mobilize that."
But some critics see Wisconsin Way as a backroom cabal to restructure state spending and revenue collection to benefit its constituent groups at the expense of (pick one) business, workers, taxpayers or the state's progressive heritage. And even if the coalition is right and its motives are genuine, it may not be able to succeed in the current broken political culture.
Wisconsin Way traces its origins to Wood, whose clients include the Wisconsin Realtors. Some years ago, Wood began engaging Mike Theo, the Realtors' executive vice president, in quiet conversations about the state's future.
Theo says polling data, demographic trends and the state's ongoing history of structural budget deficits all add up to a clear message: "If you look at this from 30,000 feet, there's a train wreck happening here right in front of our eyes."
This train wreck has two major causes. The first is that the state has a growing number of young people. The second is that it has a growing number of old people.
Between 2000 and 2030, the population of Wisconsin will expand by 18% - a growth of about 1 million people, to just over six million. This will spike the demand for housing, schools, roads and sewers. And, in the same 30-year period, the number of state residents over 65 will almost double, from 750,000 to nearly 1.4 million.
The point of impact is the property tax. Wisconsin seniors alone will go from being one of every six property owners in the state to one of every four, and two-thirds of them will have incomes of less than $35,000 a year. That means it will be harder than ever for Wisconsin to rely on this historic source for funding local government - at a time when the cost of adding and maintaining infrastructure is expected to skyrocket.
Don't look to income taxes to fill the gap. "The percentage of Wisconsin's population in the workforce is projected to drop from 61% in 2000 to 57% in 2030," says the Wisconsin Way report.
And those employed are likely to be less educated and have lower-paying jobs. Says the report: "Wisconsin continues to experience a net loss of those people earning bachelor degrees, while nine of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in the state only require a high school degree or less, suggesting that wage values will continue to decline."
The situation is exacerbated by other trends: a decline in worker output and the fabled "brain drain" of college graduates from the state. "Per-worker productivity now ranks 42nd among the states," says Dan Thompson. "We have fallen fairly precipitously over the decades."
Several of the coalition's other members have reached similarly bleak assessments, which laid the groundwork for them to join hands, even with sometime adversaries.
"We came to the realization that the only way that counties can be successful in having sufficient revenues - other than property taxes - to fund government services is if the state has money to share with us," says Mark O'Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association. "If the state doesn't have money, it can't share it. So as counties, we care about the state doing well."
But it doesn't stop there. State revenues ultimately come from income and sales taxes - which, O'Connell notes, are the fruit of people making good wages: "If we're going to have more people in the state making more money, it's going to be because private-sector people make more money. We need to care about the private sector doing well."
For the Realtors, property taxes are a big target. "Our current tax system relies way too heavily on property taxes," says Theo. "That makes home ownership more expensive." And this in turn can put the hurt on local governments. "So when we have a big downturn like we experienced in the last couple of years, everybody goes down the tank, and the revenues to local government go down as well."
After a summer of meetings in 2007, the coalition took its show on the road. Over the next several months, the coalition sponsored 23 town-hall-style meetings across the state, where thousands turned out to watch a video featuring former Republican Congressman Scott Klug lay out a broad-brush analysis of the situation. Later came 123 smaller meetings and presentations to select groups in government and the private sector. In all, says Wood, some 10,000 Wisconsin residents have participated in Wisconsin Way-sponsored discussions. A half-dozen public opinion polls supplemented the work.
The response at the early town-hall sessions surprised Thompson. "We initially thought our biggest problem was going to be getting people's attention," he says. Instead, most citizens were receptive to the group's analysis. "We really didn't get much in the way of pushback from folks standing up and saying, 'No, there's no problem here.'"
But the group's initial "Blueprint for Change" was met with brickbats from both sides of the Legislature. Democratic Sen. Russ Decker blasted its suggestion that Wisconsin should rely more on sales taxes and fees while cutting some corporate taxes. And Republican Rep. Steve Nass issued a news release calling the plan "A blueprint to higher taxes and government bloat" and "a road map to fiscal disaster for taxpayers."
Looking back, Wood says there was "a fundamental misreading" of ideas that the coalition was attempting to put forward: "We should have spent more time briefing legislators before we released the document."
Wisconsin Way soldiered on at first, scheduling a series of daylong conferences in Madison last spring to build support. But when news broke that the state's budget deficit was on track to balloon to $6.5 billion, the group suspended these events, saying lawmakers were too preoccupied with the budget to attend.
Now, after months of hashing out the ideas among the coalition's members and others, comes Wisconsin Way's new report. Wood notes that it's a "blueprint." "Change orders are possible," he's fond of saying.
But the group stills faces skepticism on all sides. Jack Norman, research director for the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, a progressive think-tank based in Milwaukee, is puzzled by Wisconsin Way's "incredible ambiguity about whether or not additional revenue is needed to support state and local government in Wisconsin." In contrast, his group's position is clear: State and local government is being "starved" and should be nourished by eliminating corporate tax breaks and extending sales taxes to a wide range of transactions currently exempt.
Norman also questions proposals to shift some costs to user fees instead of taxes. He thinks this will hit ordinary citizens the hardest, whereas true user fees would be borne mostly by people with wealth, property and connections.
Elsewhere along the political spectrum, Steve Baas, governmental affairs director for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, says business owners are open to ideas on changing how government gets its revenue - but they want assurances that government spending itself will be reined in.
"If you don't define the size of the pie and just say we're going to start slicing the pieces up in different sizes," he says, "what ends up happening is the entire pie grows" - the pie, in this case, being government.
Meanwhile, Mike McCabe of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign questions whether the Wisconsin Way proposals are as organic as claimed. In an early meeting with Wood, McCabe sensed that the coalition had already arrived at its policy solutions. "All of these public meetings were aimed at trying to create the appearance that they had gathered these ideas from average folks around the state," he says.
But others see promise in Wisconsin Way's approach. "This is a serious effort to find ways to do government better and cheaper," says Rich Eggleston, spokesman for the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities. "The question is, how do you inform people about what it is that local government in particular does, and how do you achieve a dialogue? Wisconsin Way was trying to create a dialogue between the citizens and the decision makers about what they really want from government."
Wisconsin Way participants say they're learning as they go - but the important thing is that they're learning. One lesson, says WEAC executive director Dan Burkhalter, is that "there's really no way we can cut our way out of the existing budget mess going forward. The numbers don't add up." And there is popular support for many of the programs and services that might be cut.
Mike Theo of the Realtors, meanwhile, says he found himself reexamining old prejudices - such as that simply ferreting out "waste, fraud and abuse" in government will enable it to pay for all the services people want.
"There was a lot more literature and research that the League of Municipalities and the Alliance of Cities and even WEAC brought to the table and said, 'You guys are exaggerating the net savings' [that could be achieved]. That was all kind of new to me."
At a time when partisan gridlock causes voter discontent, there might be something inspirational in that. It might be easy to imagine that groups working outside the political parties, representing diverse constituencies and detached from partisan politics, are uniquely positioned to find solutions to knotty problems of policy and government.
"I think that by being groups that historically have not seen common ground, and by trying to define that common ground," says Burkhalter, "we can actually contribute to how this is thought about."
John Coleman, a UW-Madison political scientist, says the breadth of Wisconsin Way's membership may be both a strength and a liability.
"Any time you get a fairly broad coalition together, people tend to notice that," he says. But broad coalitions may have trouble translating shared principles into concrete ideas. "When the rubber hits the road it can be a lot harder to keep that consensus together."
Wisconsin Way members know that polarization presents a challenge as they work to sell solutions to the Legislature. They insist, though, it doesn't have to defeat them.
"I don't think anything's going to be easy," says Pat Goss, executive director of the Transportation Builders group. "But I also think we're to the point, not just in this state but in this country, where the general public wants solutions and wants things that work long-term."
b>Wisconsin Way's new 'Blueprint for Change'
The Wisconsin Way report, scheduled for release later this month, will make more than 40 recommendations in three broad areas: economic development; tax reform and modernization; and government operations.
On economic development, the group calls for streamlining and coordinating the many state and regional programs aimed at attracting and bolstering business. Several provisions would expand the state's role as a source of capital through a variety of state-initiated venture capital programs.
The report also proposes eliminating the capital gains tax on investments in Wisconsin start-ups and expansions, provided that gains are reinvested in the state; and eliminating the state corporate income tax for the first five years on all start-ups and expansions that go to create jobs.
The report frames education primarily in terms of the economy. It proposes optional three-year college degrees; deferred tuition that college students would repay after they enter the workforce; expanded school-to-work opportunities; and various incentives to encourage college students to move here or stay here.
On tax reform, the report urges helping local communities limit property-tax use to education and costs "directly related to property," like street maintenance, garbage collection, transportation and parks.
More daringly, it suggests shifting the cost of fire and police protection from property taxes to a fee-for-service system. But, as with a number of other suggestions, the precise mechanism for doing this is not fleshed out.
The blueprint calls for shifting more public school funding from local property taxes to the state. This would be paid for by hiking UW System tuition for wealthier families and shifting more education costs to the sales tax.
Finally, in the area of government spending reform, recommendations range from consolidating government services to enhancing the public's understanding of government. That includes reviewing what is taught in public schools "about how state and local governments operate."