Standing for Local Governments
We need a mayor in Madison, a champion for cities and villages willing to work across party lines to help local leaders do their jobs. First responders, public health, garbage pickup, snow removal, libraries, senior centers, local roads and countless other services like them — not to mention parks, transit, and services delivered by our counties. This is where the real work of government happens. These are the services we see every day, and I’m proud of the work we’ve done in South Milwaukee to deliver them, responsibly stewarding taxpayer dollars at every point, delivering a strong bond rating and respect from ratings firms like Moody’s.
Yet state lawmakers have made it increasingly hard for local leaders to do our jobs. Through unfunded mandates, removal of local decision making, and reducing revenue options, legislators have told local leaders for years, “We know better than you.” Well, they don’t. That is why I will stand for our local communities, now more than ever.
It means fighting to limit the damage done in what is certain to be one of the toughest biennial budgets in history. It means standing up for local control. There are times when a statewide approach to solving local problems is necessary, like during a pandemic. More often than not, however, the state needs to get the heck out of the way. It means addressing levy limits, giving communities more flexibility to fund our services and the people who deliver them, and increasing our ability to fix local roads and invest in utilities and other critical infrastructure.
A word on levy limits … Levy limits have hamstrung governments across Wisconsin for more than a decade. Increases in base tax levy are capped at “new new construction,” and that’s a problem. For South Milwaukee, and many fully developed communities, that figure is almost 0. For 2021 in South Milwaukee, it’s 0.07%. That is less than $10,000 in allowable levy increase to help fund a $19 million budget. Costs go up, and we can’t keep pace, much less invest in new services. That is why South Milwaukee held a public safety referendum in 2017 to preserve our paramedic program and add two new police officers. It passed 2-to-1, but no community should need a referendum to make investments in these core city services.
Which brings me to my last point …
Being a champion for cities also means having the courage to help drive the much bigger conversation around fixing a broken funding system for local governments in Wisconsin. Our property taxes are higher than many other states in the nation because we rely on them to fund governments in Wisconsin more than almost any other state. There needs to be more of a balance in how local governments are funded, and it will be hard to make the investments we need locally until Madison lawmakers work together to address this.
Standing for Public Education
I will be a champion for our first-class Oak Creek, South Milwaukee and Franklin schools, working across party lines to help ensure our they have the resources they need for our kids — my kids — to succeed. I say this as the proud parent of a South Milwaukee seventh-grader and sophomore, a youth basketball coach, husband to a teacher and school board member, and a community leader who see the success of our kids as the success of our city, district, state and nation.
There are countless educational success stories, in Oak Creek, Franklin and South Milwaukee. Let’s build on those, and renew our commitment to public education across the state. That means working to ensure schools have what they need to educate our kids, including safely reopening, amid the pandemic. It means supporting our educators in their efforts to connect with all kids, where they are. It means restoring 2/3 funding from the state and ending the antiquated, inequitable, “winners and losers” approach to per-pupil aid that has impacted South Milwaukee and Oak Creek harder than other area districts. It means more state funding for special education. It means pushing back on voucher expansion until there is proof this decades-long experiment truly delivers better outcomes, combined with the accountability so many of voucher schools still lack.
Responsibly Responding to the Pandemic
The pandemic is worsening, as we face a second spike in cases in Wisconsin, soon to be combined with the flu season. The need for a strong and unified state response is more critical than ever. Unfortunately, we are seeing the opposite, and have since the pandemic began. That has too often left communities to fend for themselves, leading to a patchwork approach to a virus that demands the opposite.
The legislature is not doing its job when it comes to COVID-19. It’s not working. It has not formally convened in more than five months, after passing a bare-bones relief package that helped, but didn’t go far enough as the pandemic deepens. Instead of coming together to find solutions, Republican are choosing to spend their time litigating, not legislating, suing the administration over elections and stay-at-home and mask orders. And then, when given a chance to show their commitment to cooperation with the administration after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the “Safer at Home” order, Republicans punted, saying the pandemic response is a local issue.
We must do better, together, and equitably. Start with ensuring our front-line health care workers and providers have what they need to save lives and keep us healthy. Support local governments by investing in our first responders, local health departments, election officials and other workers dealing with the pandemic every day. Invest in our schools, making sure they have what they need to educate our kids, no matter how they are choosing to do that. Step up for our small businesses through financial and other support, as so many confront an uncertain future.
And let’s help our unemployed workers. This problem is not solved. Wait times are still too long for too many people. I spoke with a voter in Oak Creek recently who lost her job in March due to the pandemic. After finally getting through jammed phone lines, she got her benefits in a few weeks, but a colleague of hers didn’t get his until August! That is unacceptable, and rather than help fix this problem, we get dueling press releases from both parties, and Madison Republicans play the blame game, choosing again not to reconvene to fix this.
As local leaders, we work together to solve problems. We need more of this kind of thinking in the Assembly when it comes to addressing the pandemic.
Standing for Affordable Health Care
This is personal for me. My now-teenage son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 6, and will need costly, life-saving insulin the rest of his life to stay alive. We are blessed to have been able to afford it, so far. Far too many Wisconsin families can not say that, and this is about much more than diabetes. The pandemic has only raised the stakes.
Too many people struggle to pay for health insurance and health care, and I will stand for those families, and my own, working across party lines to do so. There are bipartisan ways to do this, and the pandemic demands a unified approach. Let’s start by joining the 39 other states to accept the federal Medicaid expansion money, and get more people insured. Continue to protect those with pre-existing conditions. Work to lower drug costs. Improve primary care access. Offer more insurance options to small and medium-sized business owners struggling with skyrocketing premiums — a barrier to economic development. Support hospitals, who are often the last resort for medical care for the far too many people in Wisconsin who are uninsured or underinsured.
Standing for Economic Development
We need fewer Foxconns, and more investment in small and medium-sized businesses, the growth engines of our economy. I live this as a small business owner myself, having founded Brooks Communications — a communications consulting firm — in January. And I live this every day as mayor of South Milwaukee, where we have stepped up our proactive efforts to attract and retain these kinds of businesses for years — and it’s working. Multi-generation businesses are choosing to expand, and others are choosing to call South Milwaukee home as they relocate. Some are startups. In some cases, we are delivering public-private partnerships to make that happen, including the recent partnership with the Bucyrus Foundation on two large downtown projects.
The state can play a strong role in this work. Among my priorities …
Start with ensuring we are supporting businesses through the pandemic, limiting the economic damage as we move into 2021 with the pandemic. Increase investment in the Main Street program, providing resources for downtown revitalization across the state. Put a focus on entrepreneurship and encouraging small business startups. Go after the big fish, too, but do so strategically and with a clear return on any investment of taxpayer dollars, accountability for that investment, and strong protections for any state support. Invest in workforce development, training and retraining the work force of tomorrow.
We must do better, together, around ecomomic development.