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April 25, 2019

4/11/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our view
Tuesday's message: Ignore northern Wisconsin at your own peril

People and pundits everywhere are still scratching their heads over last Tuesday's state Supreme Court race, and there are probably as many theories as there are pundits about what conservative judge Brian Hagedorn's apparent upset victory over liberal judge Lisa Neubauer means.

If anything.

After all, every Wisconsin election these days seems to produce wild swings and topsy turvy results. We elect extreme liberals like Tammy Baldwin and conservatives like Ron Johnson. We vote for Trump and turn around and kick Scott Walker out of office. Go figure.

But a few patterns have become clear to many. One is that Supreme Court races increasingly reflect the overall mood of the electorate and mirror results in partisan general elections. Truly nonpartisan Supreme Court races disappeared a long time ago, and nobody even bothers anymore to keep up the charade.

The other is that uber-liberal Madison and liberal Milwaukee continue to face off with the very conservative suburban counties around Milwaukee and extending up into the Fox Valley. They usually pretty much offset each other, and turnout usually decides the day.

It makes for the wild swings we've been having. A dip here, a dip there, and you're done.

The only noticeable change over the past several years is that those suburban Republican counties have become just ever-so-slightly less Republican, and probably cost Scott Walker his bid for a third term as governor.

That subtle but detectable change has pretty much made the southwestern and western swing counties more important in close elections, and it has been - and could still be - considered a bad long-term omen for Republicans and conservatives.

Until Tuesday, that is. On Tuesday, something changed.

Notice that in the above analysis, there's no mention of northern Wisconsin. That's because northern Wisconsin hasn't made a difference in an election in a long, long time.

But on Tuesday, the northern part of the state woke up from its long slumber. On Tuesday, the region roared.

Northern Wisconsin pretty much carried Hagedorn, who had been abandoned by the Republican establishment, to victory.

Now one election is certainly not a pattern, but it does offer the opportunity for a few reflections.

One, it would be a mistake for Democrats to write this election off as a fluke - a one-off low-turnout Supreme Court race with little else at stake.

After liberal Rebecca Dallet prevailed in her Supreme Court contest last year, Scott Walker warned that something was afoot in the electorate at large and that he was in trouble. He was right.

That Supreme Court race turned out to be a bellwether, and this spring's race attracted a lot more voters than that one. Democrats should pay attention to the red flag.

Likewise, the pundit class and the candidate class would be wise not to ignore the message northern Wisconsin sent on Tuesday.

That message is simple and straightforward: Stop ignoring us. Don't dismiss us as unimportant. Or do so at your own peril. We are a frustrated population.

Since at least the days of Gov. Jim Doyle, ignoring the region has been standard practice. The Doyle administration basically told the North to go tend its little tourism garden, but not to expect any economic beef. That was meant for southern Wisconsin.

To make matters worse, the Democrats put their foot down on the region's neck with onerous, overly restrictive land-use regulations designed not only to discourage economic development but to encourage depopulation as a state policy.

And it worked. Northern Wisconsin as a whole has sustained the heaviest population losses in the state over the last 20 years.

Gov. Scott Walker's administration didn't do much better than Doyle's. To be sure, the Walker years saw a rollback of the worst of the land-use restrictions, but there was still no serious attempt at economic development. Instead, the administration slathered its cronies in southern Wisconsin with boatloads of subsidies - after all, those suburbs won elections.

We weren't completely ignored. Those kind Republicans did allow us to rent out our homes short-term if we went broke from the dearth of economic opportunity.

The truth is, the electoral battles between the cities and the suburbs down south was really a subsidy battle between the Democratic and Republican establishments. It still is.

Last week, though, Gov. Tony Evers's new Department of Administration secretary, Joel Brennan, stopped by for a chat, and we were glad to have him. We did wonder, though, where the governor himself was.

Hmmmm, but don't worry. He'll probably show up for a photo op on the opening day of fishing season.

We acknowledge that it's way too early to judge the Evers' administration on its plans for economic development in northern Wisconsin - or lack thereof. But Brennan did cause us concern on a number of issues. And, overall, he seemed tone deaf and out of touch with the realities of our region.

Oh sure, he talked a good game. The governor is not going to leave us out of his economic strategy, he said. The governor is pursuing a 72-county strategy, Brennan said.

So why is it, we wanted to know, that the governor stacked his Next Generation Workforce and Economic Development Policy Advisory Council with Madison and Milwaukee insiders and union leaders, with just one person out of the 30 total members hailing from north of Hwy. 8.

Why do we have such a tiny voice? It's not for lack of leadership. We have talented, energetic, and creative economic development leaders working hard for this region. They work long hours in the trenches every day.

Why weren't any of them asked to help give the North a voice? The governor can feel free to give us a call if he needs any suggestions.

And then there's the proposed gas-tax increase of 8 cents per gallon, which Mr. Brennan believes is going to benefit everybody because there will be more money for roads and bridges across the state.

True, but if you're being shortchanged to begin with - and we are, because northern Wisconsin does not get back all the gas tax money it pays; a portion is siphoned off to the south - a gas tax increase in northern Wisconsin simply means more of our money, in absolute dollars, is headed out of the region, unless the tax transfer is remedied.

We wouldn't bet on it.

Plus Mr. Brennan is not looking at the other side of the equation. He's looking at roads and bridges, but perhaps he should look at human beings.

Northern Wisconsin is a relatively impoverished area, and every dollar spent on gas has an enormous and outsized impact on people with already lower household incomes. Add in the fact that in northern Wisconsin we have no viable mass transit, and people must generally drive longer distances to get to work, thereby using even more gasoline.

As such, a gas tax increase should be seen as particularly onerous and cruel in northern Wisconsin, but this administration doesn't seem to get it.

Likewise, Mr. Brennan was exuberant about the Stewardship Fund, touting its benefits for tourism. That's a red flag, for it sounds ominously like the "tourism is your only niche" of past administrations.

Beyond that, the question Mr. Brennan should have asked is, with some 28 percent of Oneida County already publicly owned, how much does tourism need? When does that become just an excuse for ever more government land grabs? How much government ownership is enough?

How much is too much, for the more land in public hands, the higher the price of development, the higher the price of housing. High prices pushed even higher by government overregulation and ownership is a disincentive to investment in the first place.

Finally, Mr. Brennan also liked Obamacare and suggested that the ravages of that program - cutting workers' hours to avoid Obamacare requirements, having to reduce hours of work or quitting altogether to qualify for subsidies - are minimized because most people have private health insurance.

Spoken like a true elitist with a government health insurance policy. He seemed not to be aware that state policy has discouraged the kind of economic development in the Northwoods that is a prerequisite for such widespread private insurance.

We are a region, by necessity, of entrepreneurs, of the self-employed, of small businesses - many of whom have been forced into Obamacare and who have had to suffer its consequences.

So far, the Evers administration seems not to understand any of this. Maybe they will listen, and perhaps they will going forward.

But that means giving a true voice to the Northwoods, and representative seats at the table of economic development strategy. So far it's just words.

We hope it does not remain that way, for, as last Tuesday showed, northern Wisconsin is capable of fighting back with votes.

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