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By Dave Umhoefer January 4, 2011

Wisconsin Rep. Jeff Stone says he never proposed privatizing Mitchell International Airport

Wisconsin state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) was a state lawmaker working on transportation issues when he unveiled a plan to put Mitchell International Airport under the control of an appointed airport authority -- and take control away from Milwaukee County government.

Now, five years later, Stone is running for Milwaukee County executive -- and his failed attempt to create regional airport control is back in the news.

Stone’s campaign kickoff on Dec. 15, 2010 didn’t include any major pronouncements, but in questions from reporters the privatizing claim popped up.

"I never proposed privatizing the airport," Stone said, responding to a question. "What we looked at was a regional operation for the airport" to enhance job and business growth in the area.

With the executive’s race getting fired up, we decided to look into Stone’s statement.

When he pushed for an appointed regional authority to govern Mitchell, Stone and a top aide said he was acting on behalf of some in Milwaukee’s business community.

Business leaders have long wanted to ensure that eventual airport expansion could proceed and that day-to-day airport operations could be divorced from Milwaukee County Board politics. More than one-fourth of airports in the country are governed by an independent board.

At the time, critics -- notably elected officials representing citizens living near the airport -- hit Stone hard. They revealed the fact airport authority backers, including a Stone aide, secretly met with business officials to draft a plan to spin the airport off from the county. They pointed out the airport’s reputation as a well-run, financially self-sufficient enterprise.

County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic, in remarks echoed by her then-colleague Richard Nyklewicz, accused Stone of seeking to "privatize" Mitchell "by handing over management to an unaccountable, appointed board."

Stone, then and now, vehemently denies that his support for an airport authority constitutes "privatization."

So who’s right?

The legislation Stone co-authored would have taken Mitchell out of direct public control of county government. Notably, the bill he introduced prohibited the governor and county executive from putting politicians or government employees on the board that would control the airport authority.

Around the country, some airport authorities have elected official representation and some do not, three experts told PolitiFact Wisconsin.

It’s also clear that the intent was to give airlines -- private companies -- much greater sway over airport affairs. A "business first mentality," is how Stone aide Mike Pyritz described the idea in an interview.

Additionally, as head of a 2006 state legislative study committee on airport authorities, Stone invited testimony from Reason Institute transportation researcher Robert Poole, who had just released a study saying that a long-term lease of Mitchell to a private operator could reap hundreds of millions of dollars.

But we could find no evidence that Stone ever got behind the notion of leasing or selling Mitchell to a private operator, nor was that approach included in his airport authority bill.

It was, in fact, the Milwaukee County Board that, in 2006, launched a study of the privatization possibilities.

Even if Stone’s bill had passed in Madison, the airport still would have been owned by Milwaukee County, albeit with greater private influence. The airport authority would have been a government creation run by appointees of elected officials.

Similar, though not identical, examples abound in Wisconsin under the general label of quasi-governmental entities, including the Wisconsin Center District, whose political appointees run the Frontier Airlines Center in downtown Milwaukee.

Richard Abelson, a top Milwaukee public-sector union official, served on the 2006 state legislative study committee on airport authorities that Stone chaired. Abelson is an opponent of airport authorities, and is wary of moves that could lead to outsourcing of airport jobs.

He says Stone’s proposal did not amount to privatization. That, Abelson said, would mean leasing the airport to a private operator.

"He got tagged with misinformation," Abelson said of Stone, adding "some people considered an authority a first step toward privatization."

Debby McElroy, executive vice president of Airports Council International, the trade association for airports, agreed that privatization was not at issue in the Milwaukee case. Two experienced airline lease negotiators at Leigh/Fisher, an aviation management consulting firm, also said privatization was not the right word to describe Stone’s proposal.

Let’s bring this one in for a landing.

Stone says he did not support privatizing Mitchell International Airport.

Stone’s airport proposal would have created a quasi-public governance structure at Mitchell International Airport. A significant change, to be sure. But his approach stopped far short of turning the airport over to a private concern. Even a leading union official for Milwaukee County employees says calling the plan "privatization" overshoots the runway.

We rate Stone’s claim True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Milwaukee County executive candidate, state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), news conference, Dec. 15, 2010

Interview with Stone, Dec. 21, 2010

Assembly Bill 1089 on airport authority, legislative history, accessed Dec. 20, 2010

Interview with Richard Nyklewicz, former Milwaukee County Board supervisor, Dec. 21, 2010

Interview with Robert Poole, Reason Foundation director of transportation policy, Dec. 20, 2010

Interview with Warren Adams, Leigh/Fisher consulting, Dec. 22, 2010

Interview with Spencer Ballard, Leigh/Fisher consulting, Dec. 22, 2010

Interview with Debby McElroy, executive vice president, Airports Council International, Dec. 22, 2010

Interview with Michael Conway and Scott Wintner, spokesmen, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Dec. 21, 2010

Interview with Marina Dimitrijevic, Milwaukee County Board supervisor, Dec. 20, 2010

Interview with Rich Abelson, executive director AFSCME District Council 48, Dec. 21, 2010

Interview with Mike Pyritz, legislative aide to Rep. Jeff Stone, Dec. 21, 2010

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Leasing airport seen as lucrative, Oct. 2, 2006

Wisconsin Legislative Council,report by Special Committee on Airport Authorities, Dec. 3, 2007

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Airport Transfer Born in Secrecy, March 18, 2006

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Wisconsin Rep. Jeff Stone says he never proposed privatizing Mitchell International Airport

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