Our Path Forward: Home Rule & Local Control in Wisconsin

OWR will fight to increase municipal governments control over revenue, regulation, education and criminal justice so that citizens can pass & enforce legislation that improves the welfare of their local communities. As Americans, we should be able to establish rules that fit our local needs, and we should be free to democratically pass laws promoting the health and well-being of our communities.

What’s the problem addressed?
In recent years, cities and villages in Wisconsin have been blocked from making policy on some of the most important issues facing local residents.  The state government under Scott Walker has worked to block local laws setting standards for minimum wage, paid sick days, municipal broadband service, firearms discharge, and has even gone so far as to preemptively ban municipal governments from regulating the use of plastic bags. [note]1 Neff, Lisa. (2016). Walker signs bill banning bans on plastic bags. Wisconsin Gazette. Available:[/note]

Scott Walker and his lobbyist friends actively prevent local communities from governing themselves even though the Wisconsin Constitution establishes that “Cities and villages… may determine their local affairs and government, subject only to this constitution and to such enactments of the legislature of statewide concern as with uniformity shall affect every city or every village.”[note]WI Const. art. XI, § 3, cl. 1.[/note] The Wisconsin Supreme Court has held that if a local law conflicts with the spirit or logic of a state law, or defeats the purpose of a state law, the local law is preempted and has no effect as long as that state law applies uniformly to every Wisconsin municipality.[note]Silverman, C. (2016). “Municipal Home Rule in Wisconsin: Home Rule #59R – 2.” League of Wisconsin Municipalities. Available:”[/note] The Walker Administration uses this as a legal loophole by passing bad laws that apply uniformly across state to preempt good local laws and deny citizens the tools they need to improve the welfare of their local communities 

How OWR Proposal Addresses It
OWR will put forward legislation (and work to elect legislators to pass it )to strengthen home rule by establishing that municipal laws may (1) ONLY be preempted by state law if the legislature has expressly withdrawn the power of municipalities to act, and that local laws are not invalid if they conflict with the spirit, logic or implied purpose of state law and (2) includes language that the “intention of this provision is to grant the fullest and most complete powers possible over the internal affairs of such municipalities for local self-government.” 

Further, OWR will put forward legislation (and work to elect legislators who will pass such legislation) to establish that notwithstanding any state law, local municipalities may establish (1) local municipal broadband companies, (2) municipal minimum wage standards and labor regulations, (3) local environmental standards for the regulation of air and water, and (4) local sources of revenue for the purposes of supporting public schools. 

These are issues where local governments really do know best and local residents disproportionately bear the impact of the backroom deals Scott Walker cuts with lobbyists. Many Wisconsin communities would benefit if they could properly regulate issues like mining, fossil fuel pipelines, and high capacity wells. Similarly, state-imposed property tax caps (combined with state funding cuts) have made it difficult for some districts to provide local children a quality public education, but allowing communities to establish local revenue sources could strengthen local school districts. Communities with higher costs of living and/or stronger economies, local control would allow local communities to establish local minimums to provide livable wages and support good jobs. 

Existing Examples
The political interests that have supported and assisted Scott Walker’s efforts to crush local control here in Wisconsin have active pursued this effort across the country. Across the country, corporate forces have passed laws preempting local minimum wage regimes in 25 states. [note]National Employment Law Project. (2017). “Fighting preemption: the movement for higher wages must oppose state efforts to block local minimum wage laws.” Available:[/note]

Fortunately, some local governments have fought back. In 2016, the Ohio legislature passed a law to set statewide municipal hiring guidelines to preempt a City of Cleveland ordinance requiring city contractors to hire locally. The city took the state to court, and won back to back legal victories to keep its local labor law. It did so in part because Ohio’s constitutional home rule article contains stronger language than Wisconsin’s and  specifically grants the “the broadest possible powers of self-government in connection with all matters which are strictly local”.[note]Capps, K. (2016). “The cities that are fighting back against state intervention.” City Labs. Available:[/note] While it remains to be seen if the ruling survives the Ohio Supreme Court, it demonstrates that strengthening the legal right to home rule is a viable means of limiting state preemption powers. 

The Situation in Wisconsin:  In the past, Wisconsin was a state known for a high degree of local control. The state constitution was amended in 1912 and again in 1924 to provide for local home rule. Yet in recent years, without amending the constitution, the Wisconsin legislature has used the “uniformity” preemption loophole to drastically limit local control. In 2008, the city of Milwaukee was among the first in the nation to require employers to provide paid sick time, but the Walker Administration passed legislation pre-empting the ordinance in 2011. The Walker Administration has also passed laws preempting local broadband, gun control, minimum wage, and plastic bags. For all the talk about local control, self-determination, and limited government, the Scott Walker and other Wisconsin Republicans have aggressively enacted the “strategy for states” promoted by ALEC and the Koch Brothers across the United States. Wisconsin needs to buck this national trend, throw out the politicians selling out citizens to corporate interests, and pass stronger local control laws to prevent this from happening in the future.