What Happened to Local Self-Government?

Scott Walker kneecapped democracy in Wisconsin—it's time to fight back.

Matthew Rothschild March 10, 2023

It used to be that the cry for “local control” came from Republicans or Dixiecrat Democrats who didn’t want to enforce civil rights legislation. But over the past decade, as corporate special interests have interfered with local self-governments, many county board leaders and some Democratic legislators have bemoaned the loss of local control.

Philosophically, the reason for local control in a democracy is simple: We, in our local communities, know what’s best for us, and the local officials we elect are so close to us, the citizens, that we can’t be ignored. They see us when they shop for groceries, when they go to the hardware store, and when they worship or exercise. And when we run into them, we can give them an earful if we don’t like what they’re doing.

In Wisconsin, the fight for local democracy was part of the Progressive movement’s agenda. The legislature passed a home rule bill in 1911, and it was signed into law by Gov. Francis McGovern, who was a La Follette Republican. A year later, however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw the law out, so advocates of home rule set about amending the Wisconsin Constitution, which they achieved in 1924. That amendment reads: “Cities and villages organized pursuant to state law are hereby empowered to determine their local affairs and government, subject only to this constitution and to such enactments of the legislature of statewide concern as shall with uniformity affect every city or every village.” 

Courts have limited this power over the past 97 years, as have governors and legislatures. Republican Tommy Thompson imposed limits on the levying authority of local governments. And Democrat Jim Doyle signed two disastrous bills that encroached on local control. The first, in 2003, limited the ability of local governments to ban factory farms. And the second, just a year later, prohibited local governments from raising the minimum wage above the level set by the state. That’s why we still have a paltry $7.25 minimum wage all across Wisconsin. 

But Gov. Scott Walker and senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and assembly speaker Robin Vos took the assault on local democracy to new and dangerous heights. They passed more than 180 bills that interfere with local self-government. 

Here are some of the ways they curtailed local democracy: 

  • They prohibited local governments from requiring employers to offer paid sick leave, overturning a pathbreaking Milwaukee ordinance. 
  • They passed numerous antilabor laws that prohibit local governments from negotiating benefits (Act 10) with unions, or from requiring prevailing wages on contracts or from establishing higher employment benefits or living wages on local government contracts. 
  • They passed a slew of pro-landlord bills, including one that prohibits local governments from inspecting properties for a landlord’s first eight years of ownership 
  • They passed a law prohibiting local governments from imposing their own insurance requirements on pipeline companies. 
  • They passed a law curbing local control over the siting of cell phone towers.
  • They passed a law prohibiting local governments from enacting tougher shoreland zoning laws than the state. 
  • They passed a law prohibiting counties from enacting a development moratorium. 
  • They passed a law prohibiting communities from banning or restricting bow-and-arrow and crossbow hunting. 
  • They even passed a law prohibiting counties from helping out cities on building projects. 

So why has there been this soup-to-nuts assault on local control from the leaders of the Republican Party, which used to be the party of local control? 

Because, in a fundamental way, the leaders of the Republican Party are in hock to their donors. 

Chief among them were: 

  • Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), which spent more than $20 million to keep them in power. 
  • the Koch brothers and their group Americans for Prosperity, which spent almost $8 million 
  • Betsy Devos’s school privatization group, American Federation for Children, which spent $6.5 million 

These are the folks who were running Wisconsin. And they don’t like democracy because it interferes with their ability to maximize profits. So they do what they can to limit democracy. And it’s easier—it’s more efficient—for them to buy up the governor and the legislature than it is to buy up every single local governmental body. 

We are seeing in Wisconsin, and we are seeing nationally, this battle between self-government and corporate government, this battle between democracy and oligarchy.

Here’s an example: WMC came out with a report Dec. 10, 2019, to pressure the legislature to limit the ability of local governments to do lobbying. The report, titled “Local (Out of) Control,” wants the legislature to pass a law that “prohibits local governments from using taxpayer funds to hire private entities that lobby state government.” 

WMC wants to tie the hands of local governments from hiring lobbyists to advocate for their interests and at least try to combat the outsized influence of WMC. Essentially, in a duel with local governments, WMC wants to disarm its opponents. 

Not that it’s being outgunned. 

In the 2017–18 legislative session, WMC was the biggest lobbyist in the state, spending $1.4 million. The Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA), which it singles out for criticism, spent $800,000. 

Nevertheless, WMC alleges that associations and private lobbyists hired by local governments often “advocate against the best interest of taxpayers.” A glance at the WCA’s 2019–20 legislative agenda offers clues about the animosity of WMC. Items on that agenda include “protect groundwater from contamination and overuse,” “close the dark store property assessment loophole,” and “increase funding for mass transit”—all of which WMC opposes.

Fighting back

Fortunately, Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), is leading the effort in the legislature to shore up local control. She’s the one who asked the Legislative Reference Bureau to come up with a study on the number of bills that have been passed that curbed local control. 

“For the state legislature to neuter the ability of local elected officials to govern their communities isn’t just frustrating,” she told me. “The intent, and the effect, is to discourage and completely demotivate voters, so they say, ‘My voice doesn’t matter. And if my voice doesn’t matter, why should I call my legislator? Why should I even vote?’ The ultimate goal is to make people feel like it’s futile to fight back.” 

“More and more people are looking at this issue of local control,” she says. “Once people see the number of bills—more than 180!—that were passed limiting local control, that’s powerful.” 

Shankland is trying to roll back, bit by bit, the limits that the legislature has imposed. She cites the bill that the legislature passed to prohibit municipalities from restricting, regulating, or taxing the use of plastic bags. “The City of Stevens Point had drafted an ordinance to ban plastic bags after a lot of activists had urged their alders to back it,” she explains. “But that same week, I had to tell the alders that the state legislature was taking their ability to regulate plastic bags away, and they couldn’t do anything about it.” 

Shankland introduced a bill in 2019 to repeal this prohibition on municipalities that want to ban or impose regulations on bags and containers “designed for transporting or protecting merchandise, food or beverages from a food service or retail facility.” 

It’s a small case, which she hasn’t won yet. But it shows how deeply the legislature has dug its claws into local community affairs.

The larger issue of local control needs to gain even more popular support, across party lines, for it to succeed, Shankland says. 

Is Local Control Bad for Business? 

Businesses that operate statewide find it costly and burdensome to comply with a variety of different regulations that counties or local municipalities enact. It’s much simpler for them if there’s just one set of regulations for the whole state. 

For instance, in 2018, the Republican-dominated legislature rejected the ability of local governments to engage in “labor peace agreements,” or to have requirements on overtime hours that are stricter than state law, or even to prohibit employers from asking prospective employees about their previous salaries. 

Nationwide, the push to preempt or usurp local control has been led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful group of big business interests and conservative state legislators that come up with “model” legislation. “ALEC’s guiding principle—supporting big business— turns the small-c conservative ideal of individual liberty and local control on its head,” wrote Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor for The Progressive’s website on May 13, 2014. As Taylor concluded: “Local governing entities can be a roadblock to the ALEC agenda, so their power needs to be preempted and removed.” 

The issue boils down to this: Do we have local self-government, or not? If a local community can’t say how often a landlord can be inspected, or what the overtime rules are for local public employees, why even bother with the fiction of local self-rule? 

And if the regulations imposed by local governments are so antibusiness that they’re going to send companies elsewhere and lead to higher local unemployment, that’s a consequence that citizens can rectify, if they want to, at the voting booth. 

Certainly, 60 years ago, the phrase “local control” was a rallying cry of segregationists in the South, just as it was in the post-Reconstruction period. But by “local control,” I don’t mean that local communities have the right to take away anybody’s fundamental rights. Local control is about a community governing its own affairs so long as its rules don’t infringe on people’s fundamental rights. 

And if you want to argue about what’s fundamental, let’s have at it. That’s what our democracy is for.

Excerpted and adapted from Twelve Ways to Save Democracy in Wisconsin by Matthew Rothschild. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2021 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. 

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and a former editor and publisher of The Progressive magazine. He is the author of You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression and the editor of Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909–2009.

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