By Tom Still
MADISON – From last year’s call to arm public-school teachers to his recent proposal to cut all state funding for the University of Wisconsin Law School, state Rep. Frank Lasee isn’t above the occasional headline-grabbing rant. His offbeat ideas have made CNN and USA Today – but rarely do they crack the legislative scheduling docket.
Now comes a Lasee idea worthy of debate, if for no other reason than it has outlined a larger problem.
The Green Bay Republican says Wisconsin should consider getting rid of a few of its 72 counties, particularly in rural parts of the state where consolidation might create economies of scale for taxpayers. He noted that 31 states have fewer counties than Wisconsin – and 10 of those 31 have bigger populations.
“Wisconsin counties were laid out in the 1800s when you had to use a horse and buggy to get to the county seat. Distance was a much more important factor than it is today,” Lasee said.
Indeed, Wisconsin has some under-populated counties that must struggle to provide the basic services all counties offer – law enforcement, highway maintenance, human services and more. The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance reports that 23 of the 72 counties have total property tax levies under $10 million per year, and a dozen are under $5 million or so. The average is about $24 million; it’s about $20 million even when Milwaukee and Dane are excluded.
But should the state Legislature convene a Committee on Croaking Counties? It’s not that simple. While Lasee is correct in noting the rising costs of governing rural Wisconsin, the solution may be a bit more complicated than folding Florence County into Forest County or Oneida County into Vilas County.
Wisconsin is a state that worships the god of “local control” and its temple guard, local government. In addition to 72 counties, it has 190 cities, 400 villages, 1,260 unincorporated and largely rural towns, 426 school districts and a variety of special taxing districts. Our forefathers apparently wanted it that way. They modeled Wisconsin government after what they knew in New England and New York, and the result of the 1848 constitutional convention was the layered approach that endures today.
It’s a costly tradition. State and local taxes in Wisconsin are generally among the highest 10 states in the nation, in no small part because we simply have more government than other states.
If the Wisconsin Constitution could be rewritten from scratch, the 1848 model would give way to a 21st century framework. But that’s not going to happen – especially if Lasee and friends in the Legislature try to impose a solution from on high. However, it might be possible to use state leverage (read: state aids to local governments) to encourage a next-generation style of governing for rural Wisconsin.
Only 18 states have both towns and counties because it amounts to two layers of government for rural areas. Iowa has 99 counties but no towns; the incorporated cities run themselves and the county runs what’s outside city limits. That system may work in parts of rural Wisconsin, where the population is relatively sparse and either the county or a merged “super-town” could run things on less money without reducing services.
Over the decades, a number of independent state commissions have suggested reorganizing local government, including the recent Kettl Commission and SAVE Commission. But it won’t happen unless the Legislature empowers local governments – counties, towns, municipalities and even school districts – to reinvent themselves.
It’s too late for a debate in this budget cycle, but perhaps a special committee of the Legislature can give local governance serious attention in the months and years ahead. Heck, they can even call it the Lasee Commission.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.