Penny Bernard Schaber’s announced challenge to the state senate’s president, Republican Mike Ellis, opens the door to bringing dedicated funding for Wisconsion’s public transit systems back to the fore in another one to two elections cycles. Consideration of regional transit authorities for Milwaukee, Green Bay, the Fox Cities, Chippewa Falls, Dane County, Ashland, and other areas of the state has been on the back burner – in fact the state has reneged on commitments previously made to local voters – since Scott Walker took the governor’s mansion, backed by a largely anti-transit Republican legislative majority, in 2010.
Bernard Schaber’s announcement that she would challenge Ellis for the 19th district senate seat did not highlight transit issues, but as a member of the assembly’s Transportation Committee, she was a key participant in crafting a transit bill during the spring 2010 legislative session, which would have provided a standard process for local voters to make decisions appropriate to each local community. She also developed a close working alliance with one of the committee’s Republican members, Alvin Ott, who firmly supported the legislation.
Despite unanimous testimony in support at a day-long committee hearing, the bill was allowed to die by Democratic majority leaders in the house and senate, who said it was more important to retain their party majority in the legislature than to pass critical legislation. The leaders involved all lost their seats, as they led their party in the loss of its majority later the same year.
Bernard Schaber, who will be the first Democrat to challenge Ellis since 1998, believes he has lost touch with his district, which includes a bus system at serious risk due to loss of funding. Municipal leaders throughout the Fox Cities actively welcomed the option of offering voters a regional transit funding solution in 2010.
Among the first to warmly welcome Bernard Schaber’s candidacy was Democratic minority leader Chris Larson, who in 2010 bucked the trend in his own party by challenging incumbent Sen. Jeff Plale in the party primary, after Plale failed to support the RTA bill. Larson won the primary handily and went on to win a substantial majority in the general election. Plale then took an administrative job in the incoming Scott Walker administration.
Larson said Bernard Schaber “is a strong advocate for our state’s environment, public schools, and affordable health care for Wisconsin citizens,” while Ellis, after 30 years in the senate, can show only “a busted gavel and an electorate that is fed up with being told to ‘sit down and be quiet’.”
Ironically, the first to tell the electorate to sit down and be quiet was the former Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, who vetoed a measure responding to a referendum by Milwaukee County voters supporting a half cent sales tax for transit, another half cent for parks and culture, all balanced with substantial property tax relief. Doyle said he wanted a regional approach to transit, not a piecemeal local approach, with the net result that today Wisconsin has no southeastern regional transit authority nor any effective local initiatives.
A Republican senator from Milwaukee County, Jeff Stone, presented himself in the race for county executive in 2011 as a supporter of public transit, but as a member of the Transportation Committee in 2010 voted against the bill to allow voters to make local funding decisions. He later maintained that Republican assembly leaders “twisted my arms” to stop him from voting for the bill then under consideration.
Milwaukee’s transit system has been hanging on since 2010 by using a series of one-time infusions of funds to balance the operating budget, rather than pay for long term capital improvements, but in the next two years the last of those stop-gap measures will run out, and the system will face potential cuts of one fourth to one third in existing levels of service. Already, reductions in routes have made almost 40,000 jobs inaccessible by bus.