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Is Scott Walker Still County Executive?

Abele's budget and style show similarities

Nov. 22, 2011
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Did Milwaukee County voters give Scott Walker an extra term as Milwaukee County executive when they elected Chris Abele in April?

That's the question being posed by members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, who say that Abele—who claims to be a Democrat—is following the Walker playbook.

Like Walker, Abele promised to not raise property taxes, even though the county was facing a $55 million budget hole in 2012. To make their budgets work without a tax increase, both Walker and Abele turned to county employees for about half of that money in additional pension and health care contributions, along with cuts in various county programs and services. And they both required the board to do the "heavy lifting" of raising taxes to preserve services that were shorted in their proposed budgets.

"The only difference between him and Scott Walker is that he pretends that he's for the arts and other liberal things," Board Chair Lee Holloway said of Abele. "But if you look at his actions, what he supported and how he's utilized the budget, it's no different than what Scott Walker would have done."

Jeff Bentoff, Abele's spokesman, said that the county executive had made a campaign pledge not to raise taxes at the same time he vowed to preserve services such as the struggling Milwaukee County Transit System. Abele used one-time federal funds to fill transit's chronic budget gap and he added $3 million to the county's mental health services.

During its budget deliberations, the board added funding for more services and saved jobs in the sheriff's office that Abele had cut. In the end, the board overrode 78% of Abele's vetoes, raising property taxes $3.84 per year for the owner of a $150,000 home. Holloway noted that the board overrode a higher percentage of Abele's vetoes than Walker's. Voting to sustain Abele's vetoes were Walker's staunchest supporters on the board—conservative suburban Supervisors Paul Cesarz, Joseph Rice and Joe Sanfelippo.

"The board did not need to raise taxes," Bentoff said in an email to the Shepherd.

Pay Cuts for Employees

How did Abele do it? Like Walker, Abele turned to employee contributions to fill about $27 million of his $55 million budget gap. In his proposed budget, Abele redesigned the county's health care plan by using the "tools" that Gov. Walker created by gutting collective bargaining. The board whittled down Abele's $27 million in employee contributions to $24 million.

As a result, Abele increased county workers' premiums and out-of-pocket costs roughly 150% for next year. That's about $3,200, or a 6.5% pay cut for an employee who makes $50,000 a year.

Walker's old allies on the board—Cesarz, Rice and Sanfelippo—released a press statement applauding Abele for using Walker's "tools" to control spending. The trio thanked Walker "for having the wisdom to decipher the problem and the courage to cure it."

But Supervisor John Weishan—an early supporter of Abele's during the spring campaign—questioned the county executive's priorities and wondered if he understood the impact of the cuts on employees.

"I don't know why it's impossible to raise the property tax $3 but it's OK to ask workers making a modest, mid-level salary to pay $3,200 more in health care costs a year," Weishan said.

Weishan wondered why Abele was following in Walker's footsteps, since Milwaukee County voters overwhelmingly favored Walker's opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in the November 2010 gubernatorial election. This spring, Abele defeated Walker ally Jeff Stone in a similar vote margin. Weishan said Abele's focus on property taxes and not addressing the county's infrastructure and services was a mistake.

"If you had believed in the Scott Walker agenda, you would have voted for Jeff Stone," Weishan said.

Comptroller Position Still Controversial

In addition to Abele's Walker-style 2012 budget, supervisors are also questioning Abele's ties to the conservative Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), which has backed Walker throughout his career. Last year, its chair, the conservative Bradley Foundation's Michael Grebe, also served as Walker's gubernatorial campaign chair.

Abele is also a GMC member, and his work on a GMC study on the county's finances was the centerpiece of his campaign for county executive.

The group recently pushed legislation to create an elected comptroller only in Milwaukee County. Abele testified in Madison in support of the bill. But the board opposes the comptroller position.

"I think he [Abele] is like Walker based on his intertwined relationship with the GMC, which is primarily rich men who tend to lean dominantly on the Republican side," Holloway said. "I see him as being an advocate for them and being very little different than Scott Walker."

Weishan, however, said that Abele and Walker differ in at least one way. While Walker as county executive understood that he was a leader in the Republican Party who had to look out for his fellow conservatives, Weishan said that Abele doesn't see himself as a leader who will speak on behalf of progressive issues or for the benefit of Milwaukee County's needs.

"Chris doesn't see himself as a leader in the Democratic Party," Weishan said. "In fact, I'm not sure what he considers himself to be the leader of. I think that's where those of us on the progressive side were hoping that we were going to get a county executive who would work with the board, create a broader agenda. It didn't happen. In fact, we just got a Xeroxed copy of Scott Walker."

Abele's spokesman Bentoff said that the county executive "does consider himself a Democrat."


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