Local Government Benefits from New Laws

The Governor traveled the state last week signing dozens of new laws. Amid all the pomp and circumstance was the creation of new laws that benefit our communities and counties.

Finding ways to help local government work together is a rewarding part of my job. Many times people want to work across county lines but find they need a law change to help. I was fortunate to work with local units of government to make life better – roads repaired, nursing home patients cared for and law enforcement optimized through bills recently signed into law.

Several of our counties have taxpayer supported nursing homes. These homes allow our frail and sick relatives to stay close to home. But the costs are rising which translates to rising property taxes. Allowing multiple counties to operate and fund county nursing homes is a way to share the costs across counties.  This keeps our county nursing homes financially healthy and reduces the burden on local taxpayers.

I worked with Representative Schilling to pass legislation ensuring that counties have the authority to establish multi-county nursing home collaboration.  For example, La Crosse County has collaborated with other counties, including Monroe, to have their residents placed at Lakeview Health Center in West Salem. Monroe county residents benefit twice – by having their loved ones close to home and by avoiding the much higher cost the county would pay for care at an expensive state facility. 

Sometimes collaboration takes the form of actually transferring ownership.

Mission Road in Jackson County is one example. The roadway is in disrepair and the township is unable to fund improvements.  Brockway Township and the Ho-Chunk Nation were interested in working out an agreement to repair the road. 

Under their agreement, Brockway would voluntarily transfer custody and jurisdiction of Mission Road to the Ho-Chunk Nation, who would then make the necessary improvements. The Ho-Chunk Nation would fund this project through the Federal Indian Reservation Roads Program and funds have been encumbered for this year.

However, the Bureau of Indian Affairs determined that state law does not allow such a transfer to take place.  Representative Radcliffe and I worked to create the new law that makes possible the transfer and the road repaving. The road remains open to the public and much needed repairs will be made without local tax payers footing the bill. 

Cooperation between local government and tribes also extends to police protection. Sharing law enforcement responsibilities can be confusing when county and tribal land meet and crime crosses county and tribal borders. A new law removes any barriers to allowing ‘mutual aid’ agreements between tribal and local law enforcement agencies. 

‘Mutual aid’ refers to an agreement between law enforcement agencies from different jurisdictions to help each other out. But in 2008, the Attorney General issued an opinion stating the mutual assistance law did not apply to tribal law enforcement agencies operated by any of Wisconsin's 11 Native American tribes and bands. 

Since the opinion was released, both tribal leaders and various county and municipal police officials have been asking for a way to restore the tribes' mutual aid capabilities.

President Wilfrid Cleveland, of the Ho-Chunk Nation, wrote me asking for support of Assembly Bill 713 that would restore tribal and county law enforcement cooperation.  His letter captured the importance of allowing tribal law enforcement to participate in mutual aid agreements.

President Cleveland wrote, “…Providing mutual aid is important to everyone but is particularly critical in rural areas with limited resources.  It simply makes sense and is a mutually beneficial arrangement to coordinate law enforcement activities when needed.  AB 713 will fix this current state of affairs and restore effective communication and understanding between state and tribal law enforcement agencies.  More importantly, it will decrease response times and increase police protection to all the citizens of Wisconsin.”

Local governments continue to operate under limited budgets and revenue caps. Any assistance the state can provide to aid cooperation among government will reap dividends through savings to local taxpayers and better services for all of us.