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Lawmakers question Walker’s local cuts

By James Briggs

The state’s Department of Administration secretary faced sharp scrutiny Tuesday as he began more than a week of state budget testimony from state officials.

Mike Huebsch was the first of 19 people, mostly Gov. Scott Walker’s cabinet members, scheduled to face lawmakers. He responded to a variety of concerns, including complaints from local government officials who say drastic budget cuts are hanging municipalities out to dry.

The hearings either will satisfy lawmakers’ concerns or help them target changes they’d like to make in the budget.

“I’ve been meeting with local governments, and they have seen the numbers come in out of the governor’s office dealing with the cuts to local governments and the savings to local governments,” said state Rep. Daniel LeMahieu, R-Cascade. “What we’ve been hearing is they don’t feel like the numbers match reality back in their hometowns.”

If municipalities struggle to cope with drastic cuts in state aid, though, it’s their own fault, Huebsch said. The governor, he said, is helping municipalities recoup all of the cuts through a bill, which is being disputed in court, that lets local officials extract greater benefit contributions from employees.

State Sen. Robert Jauch (center) is flanked by Sen. Spencer Coggs and Sen. Julie Lassa at a news conference March 12 in Madison. Jauch is on a panel questioning Gov. Scott Walker's officials on local cuts proposed in the budget. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The cuts and savings, Huebsch said, will match if local officials want them to.

“My reaction to that is that the tools Gov. Walker puts in his budget go to their labor costs, which is the greatest portion of a local government’s budget,” Huebsch said. “With the tools that are going to be available to them, as far as providing the ability to collect contributions from health care and pension, they are going to be able to capture a great deal of those savings in almost every instance.”

Some officials, such as Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, rushed through new contracts for city workers to shield them from Walker’s bill. It’s not the state’s fault, Huebsch said, if municipalities neglect to use all available means to balance budgets.

State Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac, also asked Huebsch to defend a new Office of Business Development that will be created in the DOA.

Such an office, Taylor said, seems to overlap services provided by the new Economic Development Corp., which Walker and the Legislature created to replace the Department of Commerce and generate business growth.

“This seems like an extreme duplication,” Taylor said.

The two-person business development office, Huebsch said, would serve as a liaison to the executive branch, whereas the Economic Development Corp. offers businesses more general resources.

“One of the things we felt was necessary was to have a point of contact,” Huebsch said. “They would have one area they know they could go where they would have that entre into the executive branch, so they would get the attention they’re going to need to grow and expand.”

The explanation underwhelmed Taylor.

“In the new entity we created, I was given the impression that’s what we were doing,” she said. “This was going to make it easier for businesses to work with the governor. Now, (Huebsch is) saying we need two liaisons when we have 35 people that work in the governor’s administration.”

Besides Huebsch, officials from the Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court and the Department of Tourism testified Tuesday. The hearings were to continue Wednesday with officials from the Government Accountability Board, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Children and Families, and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

Huebsch, though, who also has spent time in court defending the passage of Walker’s collective bargaining bill, is among the most controversial cabinet secretaries.

When Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, began his questioning by telling Huebsch he respected the secretary regardless of the things he was about to say, Huebsch acknowledged he was in for a long session with lawmakers.

“That’s not a good start,” he said.

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