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Could the ‘home rule’ provision return power to the City of Milwaukee?

How Milwaukee city leaders seek to regain power after Act 12
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How Milwaukee city leaders seek to regain power after Act 12

Act 12 did a lot of things in Wisconsin. In most municipalities, it sent more money to the community. But in Milwaukee, it also took a lot of things away. Specifically, it took power from the local government to make decisions on how to run the city and spend funds.

Now, the Milwaukee Common Council is contemplating next steps, as it seeks to retake some of that power. It might all come down to the concept of “home rule,” a principle enshrined by the state constitution. Larry Sandler is a local writer, whose piece on home rule was featured in this month’s Milwaukee Magazine.

As Sandler explains, the concept of "home rule" is that cities and villages have a constitutional right to run their own affairs. It was put into the Constitution to deter the state government from reaching too far into local communities.

"To act for the government and good order of the city, for its commercial benefit and for the health, safety and welfare of the public," says Sandler, while describing the Constitutional language of the principle. "So, if you take that literally, they can do just about anything that they need to."

In theory, "home rule" means the City of Milwaukee has the authority to make decisions for the city, as long as it doesn't interfere with any other provisions in the constitution. But when the rights provided by "home rule" have been challenged in court, the state Supreme Court has mostly ruled against local governments. These rulings have given the Wisconsin State Legislature greater influence over local affairs, but the Milwaukee Common Council believes the restrictions laid out in Act 12 went too far.

"The primary purpose [of Act 12] was financial aid: increase in shared revenue, allowing the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to (impose) a new sales tax in the city and increase the sales tax in the county. But the legislature added all of these strings to it that really infringed, in the local officials' view, on 'home rule,'" says Sandler. "Quite a lot of restrictions on what the city thought was its business."

As a result of Act 12, the City of Milwaukee is required to put police officers back into public schools, it's not allowed to remove police or fire positions, and it can't use TIF funds for the street car expansion (the primary form of funding the city has previously used). These are just some of the restrictions attached to these funds.

With so many factors at play, the City of Milwaukee's government is faced with a challenge. Sandler says, "That's really the choice that the city is going to have ... do you challenge it in court? Do you try to lobby to get the legislature to change it? Or do you just figure out some ways to make do?"


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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