WI county lawmaker in ‘no lose’ situation with union-influenced living wage bill


By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter

MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Milwaukee County Supervisor David Bowen is living a politician’s dream.

Because Bowen’s $11.32-an-hour living wage ordinance comes with promises to boost Big Labor membership and revenue, he can’t lose.

NO PROOF: While Milwaukee County Supervisor David Bowen claims his living wage ordinance will have little effect on taxpayers, financial experts say that assessment is flawed.

Bowen, who wrote the proposal with help from Service Employees International Union organizations, will get plenty of kudos for his “fight” on behalf of thousands of county staff and employees under contract with the county.

Bowen also is assured of receiving continued financial and political support from SEIU for including a provision in the legislation exempting county-contracted firms from paying a living wage, if the firms persuade their workers to join a union.

Best of all, experts who pay close attention to the living wage say it will be virtually impossible for taxpayers to hold Bowen accountable for promises the ordinance will have little effect on their pocketbooks.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander, who has a professional background in accounting, told Wisconsin Reporter the county will have no way of knowing the true repercussions of the living wage; the added expenditures will not be quantified in separate budget line items.

“The next year and future years from now, the same people who are saying it’s not going to cost the county one extra dime, they will be able to get back up on that platform and say the same thing, and to the public it will appear that they are correct,” Alexander said. “It’s almost like a sleight of hand.”

A fiscal report by the nonpartisan Milwaukee County Comptroller’s Office estimates Bowen’s legislation will require just more than $1 million in tax levy funding in 2014 to offset the new wages. That amount is projected to increase to $3.4 million by 2019, the year the 8,100-member Milwaukee County Department of Family Care‘s reserves are expected to run out.

“If costs go up, the money has to come from somewhere,” said Mike Nichols, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. “There’s not just an ever-lasting supply of money.”

Dane County and the cities of Milwaukee and Madison, for example, have never conducted a study on their living wage ordinances to determine financial consequences.

Madison and Dane County have had a living wage on the books since 1999 and pay an hourly rate of $12.45 and $11.33, respectively. Milwaukee implemented its living wage ordinance in 1996 and now pays $9.51 an hour.

“We would have to do some kind of analysis, and I’m not even sure if that’s possible,” Milwaukee Comptroller Martin Matson told Wisconsin Reporter.

John McAdams, an associate professor of Political Science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, says that politicians have a strong inclination toward policies that produce obvious benefits with hidden costs.

“The reason that’s a problem is typically the value of the benefits is way less than the costs,” McAdams said. “But the benefits are visible and provide a political benefit for the politicians. The costs are hidden and do not, as they should, impose political costs on politicians, so such policies prosper.”

But Bowen is confident his living wage will not be a burden on taxpayers. He says the three Wisconsin municipalities, which passed similar laws more than a decade ago, are thriving.

Bowen also argues the comptroller’s report uses specific information to make the living wage ordinance look bad.

“The worst-case scenario that the fiscal analysis portrays never happens and has never happened with the 140 municipalities who have done this before,” Bowen said. “So, it’s far-fetched to say the sky is going to fall because we want workers to be paid enough to support their families.”

But Bowen’s proposal has proven a likely barrier for some Milwaukee County residents who are considered impoverished.

By incorporating the provision regarding big labor membership, affected workers actually could end up making less money because of union dues and other fees.

The ordinance also only applies to some agencies affiliated with the county. The Milwaukee Art Museum and Mitchell International Airport are exempt from paying a living wage.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Michael Mayo Sr., who proposed the amendment to remove the airport from the legislation, did not return calls seeking comment.

“None of the supporters of this ordinance have come forward yet and explained why they exempted the Milwaukee County airport,” Alexander said.

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors approved the living wage bill earlier this month, but Democratic County Executive Chris Abele has said he will veto that action.

Because the ordinance was passed by a veto-proof majority, one of the 12 supervisors in favor of the living wage would have to change his vote for Abele’s veto to stand.

There is a chance, however, that all local living wage ordinances in Wisconsin could become watered down under an Assembly bill proposed by state Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield.

AB 750, which was approved by the Assembly last week, would eliminate any local living wage contracts that use state or federal money.

Contact Adam at atobias@watchdog.org or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias

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