Last Sunday,">news broke on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Milwaukee County was headed for financial trouble — trouble that may only be solved by the county declaring bankruptcy.

Fast-forward to Friday night’s gubernatorial debate between Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

There were several heated exchanges between the candidates, but few as direct as Barrett’s claim that Milwaukee County’s finances do not bode well for his Republican opponent’s ability to lead a state already more than $2.7 billion in debt.

“After eight years of Scott Walker’s leadership, the county is tinkering on the brink of bankruptcy,” Barrett said during the debate at Marquette Law School.

Now, with just over two weeks until the election, Walker is finding himself repeatedly in a position to justify how the Greater Milwaukee Committee — a 32-member committee chaired by his campaign chairman — is recommending not only eliminating the county executive position he has held for the past eight years, but also privatizing the Milwaukee County Zoo. County park programs and bus service also could be on the chopping block.

Walker, who routinely preaches the need for smaller government on the campaign trail, says his proposal to solve the county’s financial problem is much bolder than the recommendations of the committee.

“There is no need to have a county government, which is one way to get out of this without the ‘b’ word,” Walker said prior to Friday’s debate.

Specifically, the draft copy of the committee’s executive summary, which was obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, estimated that, within six years, the county’s pension and health costs would use every dollar collected through the county’s tax levy.

Walker said this finding was “not new news.” He said the county, for years, has been spending more on employee compensation than it recoups through its tax levy.

He added he tried to control the problem by capping pensions when he first took office, but has been blocked from doing more because of his county board.

“Years ago, I said wages and benefits were like a virus eating up the budget,” Walker said. “I made the same prediction back then, that the committee is making now. But the board hasn’t gone along with me on additional reforms.”

It may not be “fair” to blame the president for a country’s problems, the mayor for the problems of a city, or, in this case, the Milwaukee County Executive for the problems of a county, but too often, says UW-Madison political science professor David Canon, that’s what voters will do.

“Clearly, only a fraction of the responsibility is actually their fault,” Canon says. “It may not be fair, but the politics of it is … the buck stops at the top.”

Joe Heim, a political science professor with UW- La Crosse, agrees. He says executives aren’t “dictators” who act alone.

He speculates that perhaps more troubling to voters will be the fact Walker’s campaign chair, Michael Grebe, also chairs the Greater Milwaukee Committee.

Early Friday afternoon, Bill Hyers, Barrett’s campaign manager, called on Grebe to either release the full report or resign from the Greater Milwaukee Committee. Grebe also heads the conservative Bradley Foundation, which is based in Milwaukee.

Heim says Grebe’s connection to the report and Walker’s campaign, especially given the committee’s decision not to release the report until after the November election, “looks suspicious.”

“It just doesn’t look good,” Heim says.


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