Shared revenue law slashes the power of voters’ advisory referendums

Jul 5, 2023 | Clean Water Now

On June 20, Governor Evers signed Act 12 into law that created a deal to update the state’s shared revenue system. The main element of the law is to provide financial support for local governments and help the City of Milwaukee avoid financial trouble. However, there are aspects of this law that move the state in the wrong direction.

The provision that is particularly disappointing prohibits local governments from holding advisory referendums except in a few very limited circumstances. Those exceptions, by the way, paradoxically also will act to limit local authority because they make it more difficult to raise revenue. This continues the trend of the state legislature (local governments were not asking for this prohibition) limiting the power of local governments.

River Alliance has helped ten politically “purple” counties in the last three years use advisory referendums to allow their residents to show their support for clean water. The result was over 110,000 Wisconsin votes for the question that read: Should the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin?

Clean Water Now vote breakdown

In the spring of 2021, voters in Marquette County (73%), Portage County (77%) and Wood County (76%) approved referendums.

In the spring of 2022, voters in Eau Claire County (79%) and La Crosse County (86%) approved referendums.

In the fall of 2022, voters in Adams (79.7%), Bayfield (80%), Green (84%), Juneau (79.6%), and Outagamie (79.5%) Counties approved referendums.

River Alliance is not the only group to use this tool. Voters used advisory referendums to speak out against dirty money in politics. In the last 12 years, 80 municipalities and 12 counties passed referendums supporting amending the U.S. Constitution to state that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech. Most importantly, 32 counties and 21 municipalities passed a fair maps referendum demanding an end to the gerrymandering that reinforces a system where noncompetitive elections allow politicians to continue to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their leaders.

A bit of context and history on shared revenue. First, Act 12 provides billions in funding to local governments. A spending bill of this magnitude should be included in the biennial budget, but the Republican-led legislature did not do this because they wanted to prevent Governor Evers from being able to use the line-item veto. This allowed them to put in many, many provisions that would not have survived on their own.

Second, there are two reasons this increase in shared revenue was desperately needed. The legislature has not increased the amount of shared revenue for many years, and during the Walker administration dozens of laws were passed that limit the authority of local government including their ability to raise revenue. The result is that while Act 12 increased funding to local governments, there are many problematic elements of the law that seriously taint it, including dramatically narrowing the use of advisory referendums on voters’ ballots.

All this begs the question, what is the Republican-led legislature so afraid of?

Advisory referendums are useful for local governments to find out what is best for their jurisdiction, and they better inform state legislators on what the people of Wisconsin want them to do. Why would they possibly want to prevent their constituents from expressing their position on important questions? It is not cost: these referendums are very inexpensive to carry out. And it is not a mechanism that can run amok because city councils and county boards have to vote to put them on the ballot.

The answer that one is left with is that they simply don’t want to hear from their own electorate.

– Bill Davis, Senior Legal Analyst


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