Milwaukee County, Wisconsin was renowned for its investment in 6,000 hectares of public parks. However, park system budgets were slashed, its unionized work force diminished and its infrastructure required hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs. How did this transition occur? This article uses Antonio Gramsci’s work on the integral state to argue capital interests and middle‐class property owners are ideologically opposed to raising taxes to pay for government services. This coalition elected a County Executive who had their consent to carry out a fiscally austere agenda. The County parks employee union resisted this action; therefore the County Executive used layoffs to publicly coerce the remaining parks employees to capitulate to wage and benefit reductions. The Parks Director, acting as the ethical state’s intellectual, in turn built civil sector capacity for market‐based environmental governance to justify fewer paid employees. Residents who value their neighborhood parks consent to volunteer in them for fear they may be lost entirely. Volunteering, however, plays into coercive market‐based logic that further reduces the need for unionized employees. These strategies result in the maintenance of a few spectacular parks while many others deteriorate.