KENOSHA NEWS CORRESPONDENT
MADISON — Seizing on a change in leadership in Washington, D.C., a Wisconsin Assembly committee took its first step Tuesday in trying to change the relationship between state and federal government.
The Assembly Committee on Federalism and Interstate Relations heard testimony from two conservative think tanks on how the central government taxes and regulates commerce, transportation and education far beyond the limited role the nation’s founders envisioned for the federal government.
However, state Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, wanted a list of “action items” from the presenters on how Wisconsin can take more control of activities within its boundaries to boost the economy.
“EPA (air quality) standards come up every so often where businesses trying to locate in Kenosha County actually have to buy non-attainment credits to do business here, because Kenosha County is impacted by air regulations,” imposed due to pollution created in neighboring states, Kerkman said.
Moving the air quality monitoring station from Carol Beach on the Lake Michigan shore near the state line to a location a few miles north and inland would produce cleaner test results and fewer expenses for businesses, she said.
Committee members acknowledged that they and the public need to be educated on how states share the power to govern with the federal government.
But Kerkman, who has been in the Assembly since 2000, said she wanted to get to work right away with Wisconsinites Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a Tremper High School graduate, in powerful positions.
“I want ideas that I can take to Washington and lobby our legislators out there … because this is the time we’re going to have some influence in trying to change things that are impacting us,” she said.
The committee is one of the few across the country tasked with shifting some of the power from Washington, D.C., back to the states, and its work will be scrutinized nationwide for clues on how to achieve that.
Kerkman said she is not only relying on the presenters from the Wisconsin Institute of Law & Liberty and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute for the “action items” she is interested in. Those ideas come in all the time from businesses, school districts and many who are chaffing under the regulations and paperwork that come from federal money.
WILL’s president Rick Esenberg suggested the committee could seek changes in federal regulations in which states took less than 100 percent of a grant in “exchange for the freedom to spend it any way they want.”
Federal grants and aid make up 30 percent of Wisconsin’s state budget and about 13 percent of what the state’s Department of Public Instruction spends annually, said Dan Benson of WPRI.
But complying with audits and accounting for where the money went becomes so time-consuming that, in the words of a Walworth school district official, “You wonder if the juice is worth the squeeze,” said Benson.
For example, the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District hired a grants administrator at $112,000 annually in order to account for and comply with federal requirement, said Benson.
Benson did not say how much federal aid the district receives annually or if it felt the cost of compliance was worth the money it received. A call to the school district Tuesday for comment was not returned before deadline.
A Democrat on the committee, State Rep. Josh Zepnick, of Milwaukee, agreed that complying with federal requirements is time-consuming and welcomed a look at making the state-federal relationship more efficient.
However, the nature of the federal and state relationship changed during the Civil War, the Great Depression and the civil rights movement, a response by the central government to correct massive social inequities.
Zepnick and WILL’s Mario Loyola cautioned the committee that shifting power back to the states could have as many unintended consequences for the states and its residents as the shift in power to Washington that occurred over the years.
Kerkman was pleased with the committee’s opening session and said it represented the best chance yet to help the state’s economy.
“This is really our time to shine,” she said.