Thursday, October 30, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

While attending two crowded social events last week, one nonpartisan and one a political fund-raiser, people in the crowd pressed into my hands and pocket a set of instructions outlining how to vote on the five advisory questions on my two-sided ballot November 4 in Milwaukee. 

Curiously their advice – one no and four yes -- matched my own. So at first I thought there must be considerable information out there about the opportunity to express the opinion of voters. And then at other events and outside City Hall during early voting, I ran into squads of citizens unaware of the issues and particularly confused by the nonbinding state referendum.

That’s the one that needs a No but is language tricky. It sounds like a sensible change to the state constitution – until you look under the hood as state Sen. Fred Risser did.

There you will find traps in prohibiting using the state transportation fund for purposes other than transportation. That sounds noble except that “transportation” is not defined. The use of the fund would be determined by bureaucrats doing the bidding of the party in power.

There is some history there -- including excessive attention by the DOT to highway building and double-decker or multiple upon multiple lanes regardless of pushes for variety. Another part of that history is Scott Walker’s refusal of $810 million in federal money to make Wisconsin part of a national train network (isn’t that transportation?) to be paid by the nation’s taxpayers, not the state’s. He turned down big money and big numbers of permanent and temporary jobs that have now gone to other eager states.

He used the political pretenses that trains would cost the state a fortune in maintenance (untrue) and that no one but Democratic politicians wanted economic development along the tracks or an alternative way to get to Madison.  (Have you been stuck on our clogged highways lately?)

Raiding the transportation fund, which comes from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees, for other government services has been criticized by Mary Burke though it was done after she left the commerce department of onetime boss Jim Doyle. Of course no politician today discusses what would have happened to taxpayers if he hadn’t raided the fund during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

She didn’t agree with it then or now, but Walker is unconscionably still trying to make it (five years later) the economic centerpiece of his argument against her!

He doesn’t mention his worse methods of filling the hole in the budget that Doyle faced (Walker has shrunk shared revenue for schools and communities and borrowed money more heavily than any previous governor) – methods that will leave his likely successor, Burke, with a $1.8 billion structural deficit.  (Maybe what we really need is a constitutional limit on how much the state can borrow!)  This question is an easy no.

The other four questions get a yes and are only in Milwaukee County as an expression of the voice of the people. A disgruntled voice right now.

A lot of media has scoffed at the few thousand dollars cost of the referenda. Why should we pay attention to the voice of the people? It’s just an expression of opinion without the force of law. Just a waste of time and money hearing what people think because the legislature and judges may ignore it anyway.  They have before. (Yes, only to see ballot advice overwhelmingly advanced by Milwaukee voters grow into a national movement.) 

The Milwaukee County referenda are listed as four questions. Question 1 has already passed in several communities – basically that corporations are not people and should be treated differently than the living breathing citizen. 

It advises changing the US Constitution to block the worst consequences of Citizens United in a way that can’t be reversed. The question asks for an amendment to say: “Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”

The wording is careful and legally cunning, expressing what human beings and corporations are entitled to in different ways and defending spending on politics but allowing elected officials to decide limits, so all quarters are protected but put in distinct separate places.

I’m reluctant to add to the Bill of Rights, but this one is necessary given the excess and disrespect the current situation has caused for our electoral process, and given the current Congress that squabbles even over ideas both sides agree on. So I am all for yes.

And yes as well on Question 2 to accept all federal funds for Wisconsin BadgerCare, which means the expanded Medicaid that will save billions of dollars in 10 years and cover thousands left in limbo. 

TV viewers will note how the ads for Walker continue to mislead on the Affordable Care Act, perhaps to halt public demands like this. The ad examples don’t hold up, not even if they pound on you in high volume. Even that so-called lie of the year in 2013.  Obama should have qualified more accurately when he said “If you like your health plan you can keep it,” because he didn’t grasp that thousands of people liked lousy health plans that didn’t fill the ACA bill – or had never used them and were shocked when they were being taken away or changed wholesale by heath insurance companies, which did read the fine print in the law.

But the truth is that most people in both parties appreciate the benefits of Obamacare as long as you don’t call it Obamacare, and if you examine the particulars you’ll see that the rising costs of health care are slowing and that most middle class families are widely helped.

But Walker turned down the expanded Medicaid coverage by the federal government under the ACA, ignoring that throughout history the federal government hasn't reneged on its Medicaid promises and partnerships with the states.  Walker is doing pyrotechnic dissembling claiming that people at or below the poverty line will still be covered by BadgerCare (the state Medicaid) and that everyone else can go the federal exchange even though they don’t make enough money to meet the requirements – by my estimate some 60,000 working people and even by his some 30,000.

His refusal to take the Medicaid money is painfully cruel as well as fiscally stupid, and the people have a right to say so on the ballot.

Yes as well on Question 3, urging the state to raise its minimum hourly wage to $10.10 -- not quite enough to live on but an important step in a better economic direction for low income families and  a major multiplier for local businesses. 

And yes also on Question 4, which is to some degree a “tit for tat” by the county board in reaction to County Executive Chris Abele.  Coming from a wealthy business background, he was apparently frustrated with the give and take compromise of the US democratic process. So Abele reduced the power of the county’s legislative arm by turning to Republicans in the Madison legislature to concoct Act 14. That limited the authority of the largely progressive (but debate minded) county board, giving more control to him, and even convinced voters there were financial savings in reducing the supervisors’ wages starting in 2016 to part time rates even if their duties in many districts remain full time.  

Curiously a Republican hope and a Democratic fear behind all this may be backfiring.  The Democrats argued that only independently wealthy Republicans could afford to take these still influential positions at $24,000 a year.  But it is turning out that a lot of progressive community activists or recent retirees – or pretty active Democratic politicians – are  more willing and able to work for the public interest in these nonpartisan workhorse jobs, and Abele may face an even more progressive and united board in the future.

It is already proving so this Nov. 4 for residents of District 5 with noted progressive activist Charlie Fox, a busy retiree, competing against a one-time county employee, Martin Weddle,  hired by former opponent Lee Holloway, both running for a vacant central city seat.  And in the spring there are more openings as David Bowen heads to the Assembly and David Cullen takes over as county treasurer. The biggest hardship is that younger people just building their finances may be lowballed out of service.

These are the consequences of GOP support for Act 14. Another is the advisory question on the ballot that would also save taxpayer money and should provide a more efficient operation, coordinated staff and fewer spitting matches. 

It’s as if the supervisors are saying: OK Abele, if that’s the game, let’s let the people in on it. How about saving big money and stop all those big fights over nothing? That would be the hope from putting an elected professional manager in charge to focus only on what is good for county citizens. 

It is a bit of payback but the idea of a professional administrator has long been in the air.  It lets the people enjoy progress with less combative movement using a legislative process and checks and balances protected from the explosive personality-driven current situation.  If Abele wants to use his money, the thinking goes, to support candidates and issues he likes, he will be more successful as a private citizen and there would be less tension in local politics and less running to Mama (the Madison legislature) to solve basic county policies. It would more often present a united front to the legislature. 

Abele didn’t intend to become the perfect example of the value of what is admittedly a radical structural change but the county has now suffered 12 years of Walker’s maneuvers and Abele’s maneuvers,  built around financial and insider influence rather than openly discussed ideas.

Personally, since Abele has given tons of money to important political causes, I found it odd and somewhat distasteful when he was openly booed at major Democratic Party gatherings, but the people who turn out every four years for the nonpartisan elections to the county board are quietly the grassroots street-level backbone of the local Democratic Party bringing district diversity and variety to the table. He cut into that with Act 14 for his own benefit and has brought out hostility toward his methods. The upshot may put money back into its proper place in politics (see county Question 1).

Recall that when Abele was first elected it was seen as a breath of responsibility and non-partisanship after Walker, who always had his eye on higher office and to heck with civilities.  Abele campaigned on being willing to listen to the best ideas from experts and all sides. Instead there has been a revolving door of talented people he couldn’t work with -- including Sue Black and Frank Busalacchi -- and they quietly or loudly disappeared when their opinions didn’t suit his.  A professional manager would have listened to the advice.

Abele has since funded his own candidates for public office, many opposing sitting supervisors --  and all lost Aug. 12.  He has been so personal and harsh (without consultation) in how he spends his money on campaigns that he seems to have insulted voters and politicos in the process. Witness the costly ad blitz portraying David Clarke as a deformed cartoon in a cowboy hat. He may have been, but Clarke used those attack ads and the historic ugly portrayal of African Americans to survive when common sense examples would have done him in.

Question 4 asks if the voters would like to see Milwaukee County “transition its management and administrative functions from an elected County Executive to a professional County Administrator.” 

Recognizing that the motives may have roots in politics, this is still a Yes vote.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with its still operative archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as pieces at his Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for

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