Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker makes the perfect political candidate: He’s smart, articulate, nice-looking. He will doubtlessly run for governor touting his fiscal conservatism and his refusal to accept federal stimulus money. That stand might boost him on the campaign trail, but will it hurt or help county taxpayers? Walker won’t take any federal money […]

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker makes the perfect political candidate: He’s smart, articulate, nice-looking. He will doubtlessly run for governor touting his fiscal conservatism and his refusal to accept federal stimulus money. That stand might boost him on the campaign trail, but will it hurt or help county taxpayers?

Walker won’t take any federal money that requires a local match. If he instituted that rule across the board, county government would have to shut down because matching other dollars is almost all it does. The 2008 county budget of $1.3 billion included just $250 million in local property taxes; some $450 million came from state and federal aids. Few governmental entities in Wisconsin are as dependent on state and federal money as Milwaukee County.

Indeed, from the perspective of Milwaukee taxpayers, you could argue the most important thing a county executive can do is lobby for more state and federal dollars. So why would you ever want to turn down these down?

I can think of just one reason: if the state government mandates spending by the county that isn’t fully funded. This has been a recurring problem for Milwaukee County.

But the federal stimulus money presents a golden opportunity for smart state and local executives to get funding for projects long in need of funding. Take, for instance, the county parks. Generations of taxpayers have contributed money to create Milwaukee’s much-loved “emerald necklace” of parks. But they have been falling apart, victims of an ever-shrinking budget and years of deferred maintenance.

Walker has a very savvy parks administrator in Sue Black, someone Walker worked hard to hire because he was impressed at the job she did with the state parks system. I guarantee Black could come up with all kinds of projects that used this federal funding.

There is a precedent for this, of course: During the New Deal, federal money paid for wonderful improvements in Grant Park and other parks, creating an infrastructure that will eventually fall apart, given the way the parks budget has been decimated.

A smart executive would look at all county departments, figure out where all the deferred maintenance was for essential functions, and get together the biggest list of projects possible. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to save countless millions that will ultimately be needed to fix this stuff – if not today, then next year or next decade. Whatever local match is required will still leave this community way ahead in the long run.

As Timothy Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, has put it, “if Washington opens the spigot, we ought to be there with a bucket.”

Businesses have been known not just to accept, but to demand government handouts or tax breaks. A Republican leader like Tommy Thompson, were he still governor, would be first in line with the bucket.

Yes, it’s possible to lose perspective and take funding that won’t save you money. But a smart executive knows the difference between boondoggles and essential services.

Walker, alas, has showed little interest in long-term budgeting or planning. From the time he was elected county executive, he was planning a run for governor. He ran in 2006 and is set to run in 2010. He wants to bash Gov. Jim Doyle as a big spender and portray himself as a consistent fiscal conservative. And if that means taking a stand that will hurt future generations of Milwaukeeans because the parks and other county assets are left to deteriorate, Walker apparently has no problem doing that.

In taking his stand against stimulus funding, Walker allies himself with Republican governors of states like Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alaska, South Carolina and Idaho. We are entitled to be skeptical of three of these states. Alaska ranks second among the 50 states in per capita federal funding received. Mississippi ranks third and Louisiana fifth. These states have long been ravished by federal money, so their sudden declarations of fiscal virginity are not persuasive. Indeed, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has already changed his tune and announced he wants to accept more than $2 billion from the federal economic package. By the time all the posturing is over, Walker will be one of the few to take such a penny-wise and pound foolish stand.

Update, 3:30 p.m., March 10: Scott Walker responds in comments section below.

Where is Scott Jensen?

In response to my story suggesting former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen could become director of the newly formed MacIver Institute, Jensen wrote to say it’s not true. “I have a job I absolutely love at the Alliance for School Choice. They pay me well and I am passionate about my work there. I will not be leaving that post to take up any position at the MacIver Institute.”

Later, Jensen amended that somewhat, saying he is a consultant and his “main client” is the Alliance for School Choice. Jensen has done work for the group since at least 2006, when its federal tax form lists him as staff member working 38 hours a week and earning $126,045. In 2007, Jensen started a one-person consulting firm called Chartwell Strategic Advisors. Sure enough, the Alliance for School Choice tax form for 2007 dropped Jensen from the staff but added his Chartwell as a consultant, giving it $126,000.

How is it that this Washington, D.C.-based group added Jensen as a strategist?Perhaps because its former president (back when the group was called the American Education Reform Council) is Milwaukeean Susan Mitchell. Mitchell is still on the group’s board of directors. She also runs School Choice Wisconsin and has worked with Jensen and others to promote vouchers in this state.

Anyway, this seems to have left a little extra time for Jensen and Chartwell to help chart the course for the MacIver Institute. Liberal blogger Cory Liebmann found Jensen identified as the author in the PDF file for some of the Institute’s press releases.

What a field day for conspiracy theorists. Liebmann has also done some research on the group’s board of directors, which includes veteran GOP campaign activist Mark Block, who got in trouble for political campaign violations. The board chair is Fred Luber, the longtime Milwaukee business executive.

In the meantime, the MacIver Institute has launched its first salvo, a poll showing that 83 percent of Wisconsinites want Gov. Doyle to cut spending. (Is there actually someone who wouldn’t want spending to go down? How to do that, of course, is always the sticking point.).

Block was happy to take questions from me about the new group, and as far as I know, he did not call from a smoke-filled room. He told me the group should be announcing its choice for executive director (and it won’t be Jensen, he emphasized) within two weeks. It will also hire both a research director and an investigative reporter (journalists may be hired for both positions).

How will the group distinguish itself from the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which has long done polls showing people don’t like to be taxed? “The WPRI does more of the lofty studies,” Block says. “We’ll do quick turnaround research. Instead of 40-page studies, three- to four-page talking points.” I guess this means they will have one-tenth the loftiness of the WPRI.

Block says the group will be nonpartisan but with a free-market outlook. Early research may look at the success Manitowoc County has had in handling health care benefits, as opposed to other counties.

As newspapers decline, there may be more reporters working for nonprofit organizations. The MacIver Institute, it seems, is leading us to the future. Of course, when John MacIver was alive, he was always good about returning reporters’ phone calls. Now the institute named after him will be putting them on the payroll.

The Buzz

-Last week I speculated that campaign contributions from board members of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance might have gotten more bipartisan in recent years. Not so, according to research by Scot Ross of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, which found it was the same as in past years: more than 93 percent of contributions in the last five years went to GOP or conservative (in non-partisan judicial races) candidates.

-The controversy over the Taxpayers Alliance brought forth a column from grizzled veteran Matt Pommer, a fine reporter who covered the state Capitol for decades. He fiercely defends the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, arguing it has provided “objective analyses of government issues” for 77 years. I agree its findings have been nonpartisan and independent (whatever the campaign donations from board members). But does it have an anti-taxes perspective that sometimes allows bias to creep in? The question is worth asking.

-Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel echoed two of my columns, re-reporting the huge proposed increase in rent for Alterra’s Café at the Lake and the other reasons why Milwaukee Area Technical College President Darnell Cole might have been fired. Naturally, no credit was given to this magazine.

Peter Isely, the Midwestern director of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) led a group of protestors in New York. They contended that that city’s new archbishop, Timothy Dolan, had a poor record when it came to dealing with abusive priests in New York. “…You can’t do that with a slap on the back, an off-you-go, and a joke,” Isely chided. The Milwaukee Archdiocese defended Dolan in a New York Times story that the JS chose not to cover.

-And is there any light at the end of the tunnel for Marquette’s Golden Eagles? The Sports Nut considers.