The last budget session was a lovely one for AT&T and other wireless phone providers. Lobbyists for these companies had pushed for legislation in countless states to end local control over the installation of cell phone towers, with mixed success.
But no state was more receptive to these lobbyists than Wisconsin, where Republican legislators on the Joint Finance Committee grabbed the bill as written by telecom lobbyists, plunked it into the budget bill and sent it on to the full Legislature, which passed it.
"They [Joint Finance] did it on a day when they threw a whole slew of things into the budget," recalls Jennifer Gonda, a lobbyist for the city of Milwaukee. "It was like special-interest Christmas Day."
Milwaukee opposed the bill, but also objecting were its heavily Republican suburbs like Brookfield and River Hills.
The legislation prevents local governments from passing any regulations to limit the height or ugliness of a tower, allows telecom companies to plop the towers right on the edge of a homeowner's lot line, and will reduce revenue for local governments that previously required companies to use municipal property for antennas and towers.
Were there sound policy reasons for this change? We'll never know since the Legislature held no public hearings on the law. That's the usual way to weigh the interests of business against local governments, and devise the best solution.
But this Legislature has shown, time and again, that it will roll over for special interests even if means limiting the powers of local government. As a publication by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities charged, the most recent budget bill "reflects a lack of understanding or recognition of the key role municipalities play in job creation and the state's economic recovery, and at worse, represents a calculated attack on home rule."
The list of bills limiting local governmental power is long, but here are some highlights of laws passed:
- Ending residency requirements for public employees by local governments.
- Restricting local governments, even urban areas like Madison, from regulating bow hunting within their boundaries.
- Restricting the ability of municipalities to regulate landlords who own rental properties.
- Exempting biogas and synthetic gas energy systems from property taxes.
- Preventing local governments from requiring a utility to pay for moving its infrastructure to accommodate public transit.
- Prohibiting local governments from regulating real estate brokers.
- Barring local governments from enacting ordinances restricting the sale of food or nonalcoholic beverages based on the number of calories, portion size or other nutritional criteria.
- Preventing local governments from taking location into account when assessing the property value of billboards.
This last law means that a billboard on Madison's Beltline will have the same property value as one on the city's least-traveled street. It's particularly devastating to more populated areas like Madison and Milwaukee, which estimates it has reduced annual assessments by $70 million.
The law preventing a city from making a public utility pay to accommodate mass transit was directly aimed at Milwaukee's proposed streetcar but also targets Madison or any city friendly to mass transit. The provision is purely ideological, as cities can still make utilities pay to move infrastructure to accommodate new highways or roads benefiting motorists.
Of course, all state legislatures, whichever party is in control, end up passing laws that restrain local governments. And there may certainly be a case for some of the laws listed above.
But the pace at which such bills have been passed in the last three years (not to mention the frequent lack of public hearings) is striking.
In most cases that's because legislators end up voting in favor of businesses at the expense of local governments. The latest example is a proposed bill that would limit cities like Madison from allocating a hotel room tax as they see fit, and instead hands the power to a new commission dominated by business representatives.
Another proposed bill would greatly impinge on the ability of local governments to restrict mining. The bill is extraordinarily far-reaching and will give tremendous freedom to both iron mining and sand mining companies at the expense of local governments concerned about their environment.
"Increasingly," Mayor Paul Soglin complains, "decisions are being made to preempt or override local powers without even consulting the local governments affected."
Which, in theory, is completely counter to the GOP philosophy. "The irony is that Republicans favor local control, says Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. "I have individual Republican legislators tell me, 'I'm for local control; you guys are closer to the problem.' Individually, they see themselves as proponents of local control, but their votes over time don't seem to add up to that."
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.