• WisPolitics

Abele prefers to avoid political labels

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele knows he’s not easy to pin down politically.

While the first-term county exec has advocated for liberal causes -- the philanthropist has donated largely to Democratic campaigns and pushed for marriage equality -- his budgeting philosophy has been more fiscally conservative at times, drawing pushbacks and overrides from the county board.

After a year and half in office, Abele still prefers to avoid labels.

“I think, functionally, terms are simplistic and reductive,” Abele said in an interview with WisPolitics.com. “They encourage arguments. More energy goes in more into whose team jersey are you wearing and less into working together on what we agree on, which usually ends up being most things, and getting things done.”

For Abele, getting things done in Milwaukee County means restoring the financial health of the county and making sure his budget priorities -- especially transit -- remain countywide priorities.

But he’s run into opposition on the Milwaukee County Board. When the board shot down Abele’s 2013 budget provisions -- which included boosting county employees’ contributions to health insurance plans and using Milwaukee police to patrol lakeshore parks rather than the county sheriff’s office -- Abele vetoed their alternatives. The board then overrode 22 of his 24 vetoes and raised the tax levy by 1.4 percent.

Abele said his first year and a half in office has provided lessons for him on how to deal with a consensus-based government, but that his priorities always had Milwaukee’s future in mind.

“Even though I’ve had a lot vetoes overridden by the board, generally they’re in the direction of ... trying to control spending and preserve the healthiest county I can for the long-term future. And I can say without reservation that the county is, I think, more financially healthy than it was at least two years ago.”

The Milwaukee Bucks might have some bearing on that future, as the NBA team is looking at a new, revenue-producing arena to replace the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Some are talking about a sales tax hike to raise the necessary money -- a touchy subject given the controversy over the Miller Park regional tax.

Abele said that while he hasn’t endorsed the idea, he’s open to discussion and suggested that if the county wanted to institute the tax, they might want to set it as a “finite tax.”

“It takes off the table that one of the things that people tend to worry about with a sales tax which is, ‘OK, how do I know it’s not just going to last forever and then you’re going to spend it on new programs and just come back to me in a few years asking me to raise it further.’”

Abele said it might help if a Bucks arena tax comes after the Miller Park stadium tax winds down, adding it would make sense for a new tax to also be regionally targeted.

But Abele admitted that a new arena for the Bucks isn’t his biggest priority and that he has more of an eye toward what the state does this year in the way of shared revenue, Family Care expansion and transportation funding. Abele said that the changes in Act 10 did give the county more financial flexibility, but still lamented the cuts to shared revenue in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget.

“When I was elected, the budget that I inherited before the cuts in shared revenue already assumed some concessions through Act 10, which hadn’t been passed. To use the metaphor that was used at the time, the tools that we were all given helped manage the cuts in shared revenue, the tools were already used. So it just meant we had to make a lot of tough decisions.”

Walker’s future plans for shared revenue remain one of the most crucial unknowns for the county and Abele going forward, though indications are that highway maintenance funds given to counties might be one area of relief. Despite that, Abele says programs like transit desperately need additional funding from the state.

“In Milwaukee County that’s huge for us,” Abele said. “We had a big cut in that and we’ve been able to make up for it in the last two years and next year with federal funds. But that’ll run out and absent another solution it’s going to mean having to cut routes, raise fares and other things that people won’t like.”

Abele added that it “wouldn’t be the worst thing” to attempt an increase in the gas tax to help replenish the state’s transportation fund, but acknowledged the guv has essentially taken that off the table. Abele also said that if he had his way at the state level, he’d reorganize priorities and focus more on supplementing cuts with different approaches.

“I’d put transit higher, I’d love to see some different thinking about the way we think about corrections ... just because there’s potential for better outcome and savings. Education, yes we need reform, yes we need different systems, but I don’t think the answer is just slashing a lot of funding absent new ideas.”

That being said, Abele has no plans to run against Walker in 2014.

“I love Milwaukee,” Abele said. “I’ve got a good working relationship with the governor.”

Listen to the full interview.

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