In about 1832, former federal judge James Doty and two partners purchased over a thousand acres of land on the isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona for $2,400. He intended to build a city in the Four Lakes region which was centrally located to the strategically important ports of Prairie du Chen and Green Bay and the lucrative lead mining area.
When Wisconsin became a territory in 1836, one of the first tasks for Governor Henry Dodge and the territorial convention as they met in a cold wood building in Belmont was to choose a site for the capital of the territory. Judge Doty quickly jumped into action.
Doty arrived in Belmont with the plans for a new city built on the Isthmus. It would be named after President James Madison, the Father of the Constitution who had died earlier that year. The streets would be laid out emanating from the central square with the principal streets being named for other signers of the U.S. Constitution. And the grand capital of the new territory, which everyone assumed would eventually become a state, would rest on the highest point of the isthmus with a grand view of the beautiful lakes.
Of course, there were differences of opinion and other people who wanted the new capital located elsewhere. But after a month of wrangling as autumn gave way to winter in 1836, Doty was not to be denied. He brought warm buffalo coats for the delegates and gave them generous plots near the center of the new city. Eventually, Doty won the delegates over and Madison became the capital. Doty and his investors eventually brought in $35,510 for their investment of $2,400 – over 1400% profit – through the sale of land to the new government and people who wanted to be near it.
Madison is the capital of Wisconsin because someone stood to profit from that decision and nothing has changed. It remains our capital because people profit from it being so.
State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk highlighted a small example in a memo to the joint Finance Committee last week. In his memo, Adamczyk showed that the Department of Children and Families and the Government Accountability Board lease three floors of a building a block from the capitol for prices ranging between $17.86 and $22.94 per square foot.
Neither agency needs to be near the capitol, and, in fact, it imposes an inconvenience on citizens visiting those agencies as parking is scarce and expensive. By simply moving the agencies to the east side of Madison, they could halve the taxpayers’ lease expenses. There are ample location for as little as $10 per square foot and they include free parking.
Why are these two agencies spending twice as much as necessary for a building near the capitol? Somebody is making money off of that decision and the taxpayers are paying for it.
While Adamczyk brings to light a very salient example of waste and a way to reduce it, we should go one step further. Why must those agencies be in Madison at all? Instead of moving them to the east side of Madison, why not move them to the east side of Appleton? Wausau? Racine?
In 1836, when our capitol was selected, it made sense for all government functions to reside in the same city. Roads were poor and it took days or weeks to traverse the state by horseback, wagon, or on foot. In order for one unit of government to coordinate with another, they had to physically meet in the same room or engage in a lengthy and time-consuming exchange of letters.
It isn’t 1836 anymore. In the 21st century, we are conducting business across the globe without ever leaving our desks. There is simply no longer a rational basis for all of our government to reside in the same city and there are several great benefits to diversifying the location of agencies.
The obvious benefit is simply cost. Real estate and housing for employees are less expensive in other areas of the state. For example, plenty of great office space is available in West Bend for less than $14 per square foot. Multiply a savings of 10%-50% for hundreds of state government leases and the savings add up quickly for the taxpayers.
Beyond the actual monetary savings would be the benefit to the areas of the state outside of Madison. Roughly $30 billion tax dollars flow through Madison every year. That money flows out in the form of salaries for employees, construction, rents, and countless other expenses. Madison has rightly benefited from such a large, stable industry in its borders.
Imagine the benefit to a community like Manitowoc, for example, if the Department of Revenue located there with its hundreds of good, middle class jobs. By locating various agencies in communities around Wisconsin, those communities could receive some tangible benefit from their tax dollars.
Finally, perhaps the greatest benefit from decentralizing our state government would be cultural. Governor Lee Dreyfus was accurate when he described Madison as, “77 square miles surrounded by reality.” That reality is Wisconsin.
Madison has a separate and distinct culture that has grown out of decades of stable, well-compensated government workers at the state government and University of Wisconsin Madison. The vast majority of our state government agencies are staffed by Madisonians who share their common culture. By diversifying the geography of state government, we would also diversify the culture of state government.
Instead of being dominated by Madisonians, our state government would also be staffed by folks from Milwaukee, Waupun, Green Bay, Waukesha, Hudson, and many other regions of the state. This diversification of culture will help our state government be more understanding and responsive to everyone in the state. If we truly value diversity, we should welcome it into our state government.
Since Madison was founded, we have invented automobiles, airplanes, telephones, computers, the internet, video conferencing, webcasts, and countless other advances that render the centralization of our state government both unnecessary and counterproductive to the advancement of the state. It is time for the state government to venture out of Madison.