Republican leaders in the state Assembly and Senate are at odds over a key aspect of an extensive bill to expand state funding to Wisconsin communities — setting the stage for possible gridlock on funding that local governments have sought for years.
The disagreement revolves around a provision that would allow the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to increase sales taxes to fund pension debt only if residents approve the proposals in a public vote. The Assembly passed a version of the bill including the public vote requirement Wednesday after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, declared his chamber was done negotiating on the matter.
However, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, told reporters Thursday morning the public vote measure is unlikely to be included in the Senate version of the bill. LeMahieu has instead supported having the measure passed by the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.
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“There are two houses in the state Legislature and it’s unfortunate that he’s drawing a line in the sand now, with his version of the bill and stopping negotiations on a bill that not everybody’s in agreement on,” LeMahieu said of Vos.
LeMahieu said the Senate plans to take up the original version of the bill, which would boost local aid by diverting 20% of the state’s 5-cent sales tax to local communities, and bring it through the committee process.
“Our goal is to continue to work with the governor and maybe the speaker if he’s willing to work with us down the road,” LeMahieu added.
Before Assembly Republicans on Wednesday passed an amended version of the bill that includes the Milwaukee vote requirement, Vos said he was finished negotiating over the proposal.
“Everybody has to take their own position, but we are done negotiating,” Vos told reporters outside the Capitol. “What we have before us is the deal that we are going to send to our colleagues in the state Senate and hopefully Gov. Evers agrees that this historic investment is worth signing.”
And he made clear on Thursday that he wasn’t willing to undo the Milwaukee vote requirement for the sales tax increase.
“That could unfortunately kill the bill and all of our good work,” Vos told The Associated Press. “Requiring voter approval for enacting a new tax, which was included in the original Evers proposal, should not be all that controversial.”
“To all of a sudden just stop negotiations when everybody is not on board, that’s unfortunate,” LeMahieu said Thursday.
“We’re going to do our due diligence, make sure we have a bill that at least all the stakeholders can get behind and if the Assembly at some point refuses to take up that bill — a bill that is going to make generational changes to townships, counties, municipalities all around the state — he’s going to have to answer to his caucus,” LeMahieu said of Vos.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers expressed optimism early Wednesday that bipartisan compromise could be reached on the bill. That was before Vos said he was done negotiating.
On Thursday, Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback stated the governor thought the vote requirement was “likely untenable,” given Milwaukee’s urgent financial needs.
“The governor is willing to support allowing the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to increase the sales tax with a supportive vote by local elected officials who are accountable to local taxpayers,” she continued.
The provisions LeMahieu and Vos disagree about would allow Milwaukee County to increase its 0.5% sales tax by 0.375 percentage points and allow Milwaukee to impose a 2% sales tax to fund pension debt only if voters approve those increases.
In a public hearing earlier this month, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley largely praised the bill as a major step forward to help stave off impending cuts to city and county staffing, including for police and fire services. However, they also raised concern over language in the bill requiring a public vote, as opposed to a decision made by local elected officials.
Johnson declined to comment for this story.
After Evers said he would veto the original measure to increase local aid by 10%, Assembly Republicans on Wednesday passed an amended version of the bill, proposing a minimum 15% increase in state funding for every Wisconsin municipality except Milwaukee, which would get a 10% increase.
While the original bill would have increased local aid by $227 million, the updated version boosts the increase to $260 million, according to an analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Created in 1911 alongside the state income tax, Wisconsin’s shared revenue program initially provided local municipalities 70% of state income tax collections, while counties and the state received the remaining 20% and 10%, respectively, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
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