Wisconsin counties tell state: you want it, you pay for it

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published December 1, 1990  | December 1990 issue

Supporters are calling it a replay of the taxation-without-representation drama that was played out over 200 years ago in America. Critics call it an over-reaction and a gross simplification.

This November, 69 percent of Wisconsin voters answered yes to the following question: "Should the Wisconsin Constitution be amended to require the state to provide full funding for any program, service or benefit that it requires local government to provide?"

In other words: If the state mandates that local governments must provide certain programs, the state better be ready to pay for them.

While the state Legislature is not bound by the results of the November referendum—it was just an advisory resolution—the message is clear, according to Mark O'Connell, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Counties Association. He says the state must change the way it implements local programs or the voters will change the state's constitution.

Currently, four state-mandated programs are implemented and partially funded by local governments: general relief, courts, youth and family aid, and probation and parole. The cost for county governments, and hence, property taxpayers, was about $140 million in 1988.

Clearly, O'Connell says, the purpose of the referendum was not necessarily to eliminate the programs, but to stress the importance of a strong local voice in state government. "The local property taxpayer ought not to be the one who's footing the bill," he said.

The state's counties association plans to support a bill that would create a joint survey committee of state legislators and local representatives that would vote on proposed programs and make recommendations to the Legislature. Such joint committees already exist in Wisconsin, and even though a similar bill died in committee during the last legislative session, O'Connell predicts success this upcoming session.

Critics of the referendum say that state-mandated programs benefit the entire state and should therefore be financed by all levels of government. They also maintain that eliminating local participation would put more pressure on the state to raise income and sales taxes. In effect, they say, some tax relief would be gained at the expense of other tax increases.

O'Connell disagrees. The idea of the referendum is not to give property taxpayers a break by raising other taxes, he says. The idea is to stop the creation of new programs without the consent of local representation, and then to examine existing mandates for possible relief.

As Wisconsin readies itself for a legislative session this winter, the debate is starting to intensify. Already, some legislators are supporting the idea of an extraordinary special session of the current Legislature to immediately alter the state constitution and require full state funding for state-mandated programs. While support for the idea currently seems fractured, the state counties association hopes that such a proposal presages big changes during the upcoming session.

David Fettig