**Editor’s Note: This letter was submitted by Racine native Trevor Jung – Urban Studies and Urban Planning Student at UW Milwaukee
The anti-urban sentiment is stronger than ever in the hearts of many legislators in the State Capitol. State Senator Van Wanggaard, representing rural segments of both Racine and Kenosha Counties, wrote a piece in the Opinion section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel where he scolds the City of Milwaukee for not being grateful for the aid the state returns to the metro region. He goes on to list the difficulties the city has with education, poverty and crime and demands that Milwaukee residents solve these problems without relying on additional tax investment from the state. The Senator fails to mention solutions, only offering political talking points.
Let’s set the record straight.
Outside of fees, Wisconsin property taxes are the only source of municipal income. Shared revenue has been put in place to support local governments and to control local taxes. Wisconsin cities are not able to bring in other revenue to fund local improvements, yet state support through shared revenue has been cut drastically in recent years.
Since Senator Wangggard made Milwaukee his target, let’s address his concerns.
Milwaukee has seen a drastic reduction in state aid as a percentage of its overall budget. As recently as 1995, 53 percent of Milwaukee’s general-purpose budget was supported by shared revenue. Today that support has fallen into the mid-30’s. Shared revenue is also shrinking as part of the state budget, sitting at approximately 6 percent.
In the past, shared revenue supported many facets of local government in Milwaukee. But today it does not even total the operating budget of the Milwaukee Police and Fire Departments. Shared revenue support to the City of Milwaukee in real dollars has dropped 36 percent since 1995, when considering inflation.
Wally Morics, then Milwaukee Comptroller, produced a study in 2011 comparing Milwaukee to nine peer cities across the nation. The study concluded that Milwaukee received 17 percent less support from intergovernmental aid and other taxes than all other peer cities. At a time when Milwaukee must compete globally with other cities, it is placed at a major disadvantage. This is especially true with the state cutting back even more resources, leaving Milwaukee without the tools to make up the difference.
Milwaukee residents are still paying into shared revenue, but where has their money gone? One place we can look is the Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit (MAC). Senior legislators created this tax credit four years ago in the hopes that it would create jobs. That didn’t happen. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau and the Wisconsin Department of Revenue initially reported that MAC would put a $360 million hole in the state budget over five years. But now that the proposal has been fully phased in, the revised estimate for this tax giveaway is $736 million. This is an unanticipated imbalance of $376 million, which primarily benefits tax filers who have incomes of a million dollars or more.
Before Senator Wanggaard can come into Milwaukee or Racine and tell us how to manage our budgets, I would suggest that he return to Madison and straighten out the mess that has been created of the state’s finances. How can the Senator protest the conditions of poverty in Milwaukee when he has cut investments in education, health and infrastructure, which would have strengthened the city and state’s economy? How can he lecture us on fiscal responsibility when the state has already skipped two debt interest payments this year and is still participating in tax giveaways?
I question his concern for Milwaukee’s poverty when he supported a tax policy specifically designed to transfer wealth to those tax filers with incomes of more than a million dollars. Wagging a finger at Milwaukee and Racine residents for being a burden on the state’s budget seems to be a strategy to deflect greater scrutiny from the real damage he and his colleagues have wrought upon the state’s finances.
Senator Wanggaard should start being an advocate and team player for our cities, not belittle them. Milwaukee has its challenges, but real leadership recognizes that Wisconsin relies on its metro regions for its vitality, and that in order for our state to grow, we must invest in our cities. Senator Wanngaard concedes that Milwaukee is one-third of the state’s economy, but that hasn’t stopped him from criticizing the region without offering ideas on how to move forward. Cities like Milwaukee and Racine have obstacles to face, but more importantly, they have a future filled with possibilities and need leaders at every level of government to acknowledge and support a vision for a better tomorrow.
Urban Studies and Urban Planning Student at UW Milwaukee
Murphy, Bruce. “Murphy’s Law: How State Aid to Cities Has Plummeted.” Urban Milwaukee. December 3, 2012. Accessed July 15, 2016.
“Mayor Barrett Proposes 2012 City Budget;” BizTimes Media. 2011. Accessed 15, 2016.
“Jake’s Economic TA Funhouse.” Milwaukee Residency Ruling Shows WisGOP the Real Party of Big Government. June 28, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2016.