Assembly OK’s penalizing cities that cut police funding. It puts Madison, Milwaukee in the crosshairs.

MADISON, Wis. — Republican leaders in the Assembly gave final approval Tuesday to a bill destined for a likely veto at Gov. Evers’ desk, one that cuts state aid to municipalities that decrease their funding for law enforcement, EMS or fire.

By slashing their state aid, the bill penalizes larger municipalities who choose to cut staff positions or funding to their public safety agencies.

It’s designed to cut funding by the same amount that a municipality decreases police or fire spending, then allows for retargeting those aid payments for other local governments that didn’t reduce public safety funding. That new decreased amount of state aid would remain in place for subsequent years as well.

Hundreds of local governments cut funding for public safety from 2017-2019, often because of revenue constrictions from tax levy constraints, a review from the Department of Revenue found. Many of them were smaller municipalities, according to the data.

An added Senate amendment includes two exceptions: the bill wouldn’t apply to law enforcement, fire or EMS agencies with fewer than thirty people employed. It also wouldn’t apply to municipalities that decrease funding but keep the same number of people on staff.

The bill sets up an ideological battle over traditional police funding versus allowing local governments to make decisions for their own budget.

“At the end of the day, that is the single most important function of local governments–and that is local protection,” Vos said.

Madison, Milwaukee in crosshairs

The changes to the bill would only target larger departments of 30 or more people–and include not just funding decreases, but staff cuts as well. GOP leaders repeatedly referenced Madison and Milwaukee’s decisions in debate on Tuesday, linking local decisions about staffing to rising crime in both cities. (When asked, bill author Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, wasn’t able to name other municipalities that would be impacted from the list of local governments that had decreased their funding from 2017-2019.)

According to information provided by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, Madison didn’t cut police funding from 2017 through 2019.

But the city cut four officer positions in 2020, and turned down a federal grant that would have funded another ten officers, which the MPD said would have created a “downtown entertainment zone team” to handle public safety in the Central District. Milwaukee cut 120 positions from their 2021 budget.

“Madison is seeing a pretty major crime wave that is not being addressed in any way that’s meaningful,” Rep. Vos said during debate on the Assembly floor on Tuesday.

Former city council member and current Democratic representative Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) pushed back, arguing locally elected officials should be making crime prevention decisions in a way that best reflects what the people who elected them want.

“You can put a police officer on every single corner of the city. Those who are determined to cause trouble are going to move to the middle of the block,” Rep. Subeck said. “Our model of policing is not designed so much to prevent crime as it is to react to crime. Wouldn’t it be better if we are preventing it in the first place?

DOR information often indicates public safety budgets fluctuating from year to year. In Green Bay, for example, the city added more than $1 million to its public safety expenses between 2017 and 2018, from $27.3 million to $28.5 million, before reducing it back to $27.9 million in 2019.

Local control

Opponents to the bill argue it removes local control from the officials that residents elect to represent them and make those decisions.

“The solution is not for the legislature to try to micromanage those municipal budgeting decisions, it’s to actually fund municipal budgets so that our communities can make the investments in public safety that we would all like to see,” Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) said in a press conference.

But it’s part of a long pattern of state lawmakers controlling local decisions on politically-charged issues, Curt Witnyski with the Wisconsin League of Municipalities said.

“We’re always battling against those types of things, whether its community ability to regulate handguns, maybe we want to have stricter enforcement on cigarette related things,” he said. “Our hands are tied.”

A pattern of decline

The move is just another in a long list of legislative actions that have cut shared revenue for local governments over the past couple decades. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, from 1996 to 2020 Wisconsin dropped their shared revenue funding from $0.115 cents to $0.045 cents of every dollar in the state budget.

“Every community is facing that same bind right now, and every community is challenged to pay for its largest department, its police department,” Witynski explained.

With the reduction in state aid has often come strict limits on local governments’ ability to raise their property taxes, their other main source of revenue.

“The point really is that communities need to have the ability to make adjustments to their budget,” Witynski said. The WLM formally registered their opposition to the bill with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission.

In a February fiscal impact statement, the Wisconsin Department of Administration said levy limits were a likely factor for hundreds of Wisconsin municipalities that decreased police funding from 2017 and 2018, as well as 2018 to 2019.

Look for yourself

The Department of Revenue compiled a document to track fiscal impact that they provided to News 3 Investigates. It lists each municipality in Wisconsin and the change to law enforcement budgets from 2017 through 2019.

With it comes a caveat from the DOR:

“It is important to note decreases in “law enforcement” budgets over the years have become more common, as shared revenue payments have not increased, and levy limits and expenditure restraint limits the local government’s ability to increase revenue.

You can search your municipality here for a detailed look at public safety funding in that time period.

Note: The data is from forms submitted by local governments to DOR. Some municipalities appear as “zero”, but are listed multiple times in the data as a result. Use CTRL+F to search all appearances of your municipality.