Partisan Split on Wisconsin Residency Rules

     MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Wisconsin’s high court cleared the way Thursday for Milwaukee police — and all other city employees — to live in the suburbs for the first time in nearly 80 years.
     Milwaukee has required its city employees to comply with a residency requirement since 1938, but Republicans who control the state Legislature passed a law in 2013 that threatened this tradition.
     In lieu of city residency requirements, the state law requires that emergency and public safety personnel, such as firefighters and police officers, live within 15 miles of their city of employment.
     Milwaukee, a speck of blue in Wisconsin’s red, prompted a lawsuit from the city’s police union when it directed city employees to disregard the new state law.
     The case went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court after a lower appeals court found that the city could supersede the state law.
     Though state lawmakers said the law was meant to affect all municipalities, the appeals court agreed with Milwaukee that it was unfairly singled out.
     The ruling cited an analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau focused almost exclusively on Milwaukee that says the state law would likely result in an exodus of city employees, who tend to make more and live in homes with higher property values than other residents.
     Another analysis estimated this exodus would cause “a reduction in the tax base of $622 million in residential land values and $27 million in retail property values,” according to the ruling.
     Based on these figures, the court could not credit claims that the law was intended to affect all municipalities uniformly.
     The court did not invalidate the state law, however, saying only that it “did not apply to Milwaukee” because of the city’s charter ordinance.
     Party lines prevailed Thursday as the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against Milwaukee.
     Finding that the state law applies uniformly to all municipalities, the court said Wisconsin’s largest city has no right to ignore it.
     “As long as the statute, on its face, uniformly affects cities or villages throughout the State, the home rule amendment’s uniformity requirement is satisfied,” Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the conservative majority.     
     The city argued, and conservative Justice Rebecca G. Bradley agreed in her concurrence, that the state can override home rule authority only when the matter is of statewide concern and applies uniformly to all municipalities.
     This goes beyond the majority’s position that only one of the two requirements need to be met to uphold a state law.
     Gableman said he gave the city the “benefit of the doubt” on whether the matter is of local concern, but the fact that the law does not specifically or solely apply to Milwaukee makes it constitutional.
     The ruling did bear some good news for the city, saying the unions and employees are not entitled to damages for civil rights violations in connection to Milwaukee’s handling of the law.
     Rebecca Bradley’s concurrence agreed with the majority in result, finding that the law meets both the statewide concern and uniform applicability requirements.
     Judge Ann Walsh Bradley, joined in her dissent by fellow liberal and former chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, accused the majority of turning the purpose of home rule “on its head.”
     “Instead of freeing municipalities from interference by the legislature when dealing with local affairs, the majority limits the power and restrains the ability of municipalities to self-govern,” Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote.
     The majority also shirks the court’s responsibility to determine whether a law applies uniformly to all municipalities, instead deferring to the legislature’s declaration that it does.
     “Under the majority opinion, the only legislation that would not uniformly affect all municipalities is one that would overtly single out a particular city or village,” Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote. “The legislature is now free to search for laws unique to Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, or any other municipality of its choosing and enact facially neutral legislation abrogating individual local laws.”
     Assistant City Attorney Miriam Horwitz, who argued on behalf of the city in February, did not immediately respond to a voicemail requesting comment.

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