Milwaukee, Madison losing clout at Capitol
For the first time since 1969, one city of Milwaukee lawmaker will be on the Legislature’s 16-member Joint Finance Committee, which will cast the first vote on the budget that Gov. Scott Walker proposes in February.
Over the past 30 years, Milwaukee has had up to four finance committee seats. During that same period, five Milwaukee legislators have chaired the panel, and some for several years at a time. In 1989-90, the Assembly and Senate committee cochairmen were both from Milwaukee.
But Wisconsin’s largest city will at least have one representative, Democratic Rep. Jon Richards, on the budget committee. Madison, the second-largest city, will be without one again.
Other legislators from cities on the finance committee are Rep. John Klenke, who is from Green Bay, Wisconsin’s third-largest city; Democratic Rep. Cory Mason of Racine; and Democratic Sens. Robert Wirch of Kenosha and Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse.
Records show the last Janesville lawmaker to serve on the finance committee was former Democratic Rep. Wayne Wood in 1983.
The Republicans’ 12-4 dominance of the finance committee reflects this political axiom: “Cities are chock full of Democrats, which doesn’t bode well for them with Republicans holding the majority,” said Ed Huck, a political consultant who spent decades lobbying for the now-dissolved Alliance of Cities.
Republicans will control the Assembly by a 60-39 margin; the Senate, 18-15.
Nov. 6 elections continued a transfer of political clout to Republican legislators from suburban areas.
For example, six of the 16 members of the finance committee—including Cochairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills—represent suburban Milwaukee districts.
Because of retirements and other factors, the city of Milwaukee will have its least experienced legislative delegation in decades.
Five Milwaukee Democrats—Reps.-elect Daniel Riemer, Evan Goyke, La Tonya Johnson and Mandela Barnes and Sen.-elect Nikiya Harris—begin their first terms in January.
The last Milwaukee Democrat to co-chair the finance committee, Sen. Lena Taylor, lost her seat on the committee when she backed the losing candidate, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, in the bitter fight for Senate Democratic leader.
The new leader of Senate Democrats, Sen. Chris Larson, is from Milwaukee. But Larson has served in the Senate for only two years and never been a finance committee member.
One official troubled by Taylor’s exit from the budget panel and the lack of experience in the city’s legislative delegation is Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who said he is coming to the Capitol more than ever before and will continue do so.
“I’m going to be proactive. I’m doing all I can to make sure the Milwaukee voice is heard,” Abele said.
“It will never be ‘Milwaukee versus Wisconsin.’ I just want to make sure it isn’t ‘Wisconsin versus Milwaukee,’” Abele added. “We’ve been down that road before, and it doesn’t serve anybody.”
Next year, when Larson, Abele or Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett want to win a finance committee fight on an important issue, their only automatic ally is Richards.
Issues critically important to Milwaukee next year include funding for Milwaukee Public Schools, UW-Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College; transportation funding; whether to expand Medicaid health care to uninsured city residents; and state aid to cities and counties.
UW-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee, a Democratic legislator in the 1980s, said Milwaukee is becoming “less and less of the population colossus it once had been. Fewer people mean fewer legislators.”
Suburban Republican legislators are the “new colossus,” Lee added. “A suburban GOP legislator from Milwaukee County would feel more commonality with Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee County legislators.”
Lee also said, more than ever before, legislators whose party is out of power in the Capitol get nothing passed.
“Even if the city of Milwaukee had more representation on Joint Finance, and even if some of them were African-American, I don’t think it would matter much, given that they are Democrats (and) frozen out,” Lee said. “In general, it’s no fun being in the minority party.”
With Taylor and Democratic Rep. Tamara Grigsby no longer on the finance committee, no African-American will be on the panel. An African-American from Milwaukee had been on the budget panel since at least 1983.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email email@example.com.