Joel Brennan, whom Gov. Tony Evers has tapped to run the administration's Department of Administration, visited the Northwoods earlier this month to promote the governor's budget - a budget he says would ease property tax levy limits and help local governments secure the resources they need for vital services.
Brennan, the former CEO of Discovery World in Milwaukee, says local communities have been scrambling to find needed revenues in various ways, citing as an example the fact that during the Walker administration the number of communities implementing a wheel tax jumped from five or six to 30, just to pay for local roads.
Evers's budget promises relief. It would increase municipal aids by 2 percent starting in 2020, and it also aims to loosen the tight levy limits imposed during the administration of Scott Walker.
Local governments, for example, could exempt expenses for shared emergency dispatch centers from the levy limits, and the budget would also allow municipalities and counties to raise levies by up to 2 percent, no matter the amount of net new construction. Right now, the law limits increases in the levy to only net new construction.
In making those proposals, Brennan said the governor is responding to the ongoing pleas of local officials around the state.
"Largely what the governor has heard traveling across the state from people who represent local units of government is that they are hamstrung in lots of ways for some of those vitally important services like transportation, like municipal or county services, that are really valuable to everybody who lives in those places and are part of the economic development infrastructure," Brennan told The Lakeland Times in an exclusive interview. "(They have said) that having some relief or having some ability to attack those problems that they've been constrained by is something that the governor should consider."
Brennan said those are local issues, but issues the state and local governments should nonetheless coordinate on.
"There has been a chorus around the state that the state has not upheld its end of the bargain when it comes to providing some of those municipal and county services and support," he said.
And voters would still ensure that county leaders act responsibly when it comes to property taxes, Brennan said.
"There is such a thing called the ballot box that has an impact on who those leaders are, what their priorities are," he said. "Your paper probably has some impact on what they do and say."
Brennan said the Evers' administration is committed to full transparency and responding to open records requests in a timely fashion, and the DOA secretary says some staff spend considerable portions of their work days overseeing those requests.
"I can tell you since we've been in office, we've received a significant number of open records requests on a whole host of different issues," he said. "I don't know what our response time is right now. But we've been in office for about 90 days, and we have one of our attorneys who works with the department who is almost exclusively working on open records requests and responsiveness. Our assistant deputy secretary is the person in the secretary's office who manages and birddogs that for us, and it's a significant part of her daily job."
Brennan says the task has evolved and changed over time and in a good way.
"I'm the son of two journalists," he said. "My parents both graduated in journalism school in the 1950s from Marquette University. And so I hope I'm somebody who appreciates not only what journalism has done, but the fact that journalism has changed so significantly over time and the access to information is so much more readily available."
Brennan said the governor, too, has charged those in his administration, on whatever issue they are working on, to make transparency, accountability, and accessibility things the administration can hang its hat on.
"There certainly is a time at the beginning of an administration where you're doing a thousand different things and you're hiring people, you're getting people comfortable in those positions," he said.
But, Brennan said, many people in state government, in civil service positions, do not come and go with the change in administrations.
"There are people who work professionally in the state government who don't care who the governor is," he said. "They don't care who the secretary is. Their job is just to do their job well and for some of those people it's making sure that we're doing right by Freedom of Information requests and the open records requests."
Brennan acknowledged that response times to open records requests to the DOA were slow during the Walker administration, but he hoped that track record would now improve.
"If you move a couple of years forward to the middle of the Tony Evers administration, I sure as heck hope they're going to be better, but there's also ways that from a technology standpoint we can get better and we can get more responsive. As those things evolve, I hope we're going to continually get better and better at it."
Brennan also acknowledged that Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation to bring the state Legislature under the open records retention law. While most state agencies and even the governor's office must retain public records for a set amount of time, generally seven years, the Legislature has exempted itself from any such requirements. As such, lawmakers can destroy records any time they want.
Brennan said he couldn't speak for the governor on the issue, but he said he believes the governor wants transparency throughout every branch of government.
"Overall, as to how we can be more transparent and the notion that most of the government has more accountability than the Legislature does - I think the governor certainly would like there to be that same level of transparency in the Legislature as well," he said. "But specifically on that policy and on any specific bill, unless he sees the details of it, I don't know that we can necessarily speak to that."
Still, Brennan said, actions the Legislature has taken in the past few months - specifically, the lame-duck bills that attempted to curb the governor's powers - has put that body under closer scrutiny.
"If you're looking at it from a certain point of view, they're trying to make sure that there are the appropriate checks and balances," he said. "If you look at it from a different point of view, they don't like the results of an election and so they decided they were going to try to change some of the rules after the results of that election. So all of those things are part of, how do you have a government that operates in the right transparent and accountable way and anything that kind of adds to that is something that lots of people are going to support."
In the interview, Brennan addressed the deficit in the governor's proposed budget, which is projected to be close to $2 billion.
Brennan said it important to understand that that figure represents a so-called structural deficit, not necessarily a real-world deficit.
"If after the biennium, if you then take every program as it's laid out now and put it forward into the next biennium, that's what you would be talking about, but without any economic growth," he said. "It's an exercise that the Legislative Fiscal Bureau always does."
Evers is not alone in registering a structural deficit in that exercise, Brennan said.
"Every budget in the last 20 years faces some higher level threshold of what they call the structural deficit," he said. "In lots of cases, the economic growth is enough to move those forward. They have to expect and account for and push for the fact that we're going to continue to have some economic growth in the state."
But Brennan also said budgets are not things that don't change, and priorities are not things that are static from one period of time to the next.
"So the governor is proposing some investments in the next biennium on things like K-12 education, technical schools, on transportation, on health care, and those are the set of priorities that he believes are going to be useful for the state for the next two years," he said. "As we get to the end of this biennium and we look at what the priorities are going to be in the next two years after that, the idea that we're going to do things exactly the same as we have before takes out the creativity, the innovation, the things that should be the hallmarks of anybody who is attacking the problems of the next couple of years."
So while the structural deficit can be a useful way to look at the budget, and is the basis for where the Legislative Fiscal Bureau starts to look at ultimate budget outcomes, it's only a snapshot and a starting point, Brennan said.
"There are lots of miles between here and there about where we're going," he said. "There's lots of time in between now and then about what the ongoing priorities of the state are. So I just it's useful to look at it as a snapshot, but it also discounts the ability and the necessity of the state, both the governor and the Legislature, to be adept in figuring out what the challenges and the opportunities of the day are."
Finally, Brennan addressed the outcome of this spring's state Supreme Court race, in which conservative appeals court judge Brian Hagedorn upset liberal appeals court judge Lisa Neubauer, prompting some to say the race was a referendum on the new governor's policies.
Brennan disagreed with that analysis.
For one thing, he said, the Koch brothers spent about $1.5 million for Hagedorn in the last week of the race. For another, Brennan said, it underscores that Wisconsin is truly purple.
"I think it's a reflection that we live in a divided state," he said. "The governor won the election by 30,000 votes in November. (This is) a much smaller election pool, although in a spring election, the margin is like five or six thousand votes in that race. It drives home the point we still live in a very divided state. We need to acknowledge that."
In some ways, Brennan said, it's the best thing about democracy, that elections are about individuals.
"If there are 6,000 people around the state who would have voted for Neubauer who are kicking themselves, they are affirming the fact that their vote and every vote is important," he said. "So the big takeaway from that election is that we live in a very divided state."
Brennan pointed out that Neubauer got more votes than Rebecca Dallet did a year ago. In that race, Dallet, the liberal candidate, won the election.
"So the idea that that part of the ideological spectrum of the state is not energized, I don't think is the right take away," he said. "There was maybe a reawakening of some people on the other side and then campaigns are also about what candidates do and how campaigns are run individually. All of those things play a role."
Brennan said the Evers' administration was simply too new for the election to have served as a referendum on his policies.
"I don't think any election that happens three months after somebody takes office is a referendum on them," he said. "You get those after four years, after eight years, and people get a chance to go to the ballot box and vote for you or against you."
Reporter Mario Koran contributed to this story.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce