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Wisconsin wheel taxes have tripled over the last four years

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The amount of taxes Wisconsin residents pay for owning a vehicle has more than tripled over the last four years, according to a new report.

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum’s latest report, released Wednesday, found that wheel taxes — one of the few fees local governments can implement within their respective districts without a referendum — generated $62.8 million in vehicle registration fees last fiscal year, which ended June 30. That was up from $56 million in revenue the previous fiscal year and a more than threefold increase from the $20.7 million in wheel tax revenue generated in 2017, according to the report.

While annual state vehicle registration fees have grown over the years, increasing to $55 in 2007, $75 in 2008 and to $85 in 2019, motorists in cities like Madison and Milwaukee have payed additional taxes implemented at the local level. With Dane County’s $28 fee and Madison’s $40 fee, residents here pay at least $153 a year to own a vehicle — the most in the state. In Milwaukee, local fees bring the annual cost to at least $145 per vehicle per year.

The state also charges additional fees for hybrid and electric vehicles.

The number of local entities to impose wheel taxes has increased over the last decade. Four communities had implemented such a tax by 2011. By February 2022, that will have risen to 44, which includes 13 counties, 22 cities, eight villages and one town. At the same time, some communities such as Chippewa County, have eliminated their local wheel tax, according to the report.

“Though state road aids have grown in recent years, the state has placed property taxes under strict state limits and kept most other forms of aid relatively flat,” according to the report. “As these trends have played out, more and more local governments have turned to wheel taxes in recent years.”

At the same time, the reports points out that wheel taxes remain a relatively small portion of local government finances, with those revenues amounting to less than 1% of all local property tax revenues and 13% of county sales tax revenues.

“If the state continues to limit other sources of new revenue for local governments in Wisconsin, they may turn increasingly to vehicle registration fees to help cover the growth in their ongoing costs,” according to the report. “Currently, state law provides local governments with few options in how to impose and administer those fees.”

Funds raised from wheel taxes must be used for transportation needs like street projects, but can offset local property taxes, allowing those funds to go toward other needs like public safety, libraries or parks.

The Forum notes that state lawmakers may want to consider a new approach to state vehicle fees, such as basing them on a vehicle’s age and value — something done in states like Michigan and Minnesota. The state also could consider giving local entities similar flexibility.

Another option detailed in the report would be capping local wheel taxes while providing local entities additional revenues through state funds or other taxing options.

Looking back a decade later, 10 stories about Act 10

The most seismic political story of the last decade in Wisconsin began on Feb. 7, 2011, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker informed a gathering of cabinet members of plans to unilaterally roll back the power of public sector unions in the state. He "dropped the bomb," as Walker would describe it afterward, four days later.

The audacious proposal, to be known forever after as Act 10, required public employees to pay more for pension and health insurance benefits, but also banned most subjects of collective bargaining and placed obstacles to maintaining union membership.

The proposal laid bare the state's deep, at times intensely personal, political divisions as tens of thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol. The month-long, round-the-clock occupation drew international attention, but failed to stop the bill.

A decade later, the aftershocks of one of the biggest political earthquakes in Wisconsin history continue to be felt. Taxes have been held in check, and state finances have improved. But public unions are vastly diminished and the state is more politically divided than ever.

Here are 10 stories from people who experienced the historic events firsthand.

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Former Sen. Mark Miller and Rep. Peter Barca tried to slow down passage of the legislation to force a compromise.

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A decade later, former Gov. Scott Walker said he views Act 10 as one of the best things he's done for the state.

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Susan Cohen wondered if the Capitol dome would come crumbling down from the cacophonous vibrations during the Act 10 protests.

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Dale Schultz believes the state's ability to solve people's problems was greatly diminished by Act 10.

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Longtime Madison Teachers Inc. leader John Matthews explains why collective bargaining still matters.

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Charles Tubbs said his mission was communicating with protesters and voluntary compliance.

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During the peak of the Act 10 protests, Ian's Pizza was delivering 1,200 pizzas a day to protesters. 

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Sen. Joan Ballweg saw the recall elections that resulted from Act 10 as the people getting a chance to have their say.

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Michele Ritt remembered her son Josef Rademacher wearing a hole in the soles of his snow boots during the protests.

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Jason Stein was amazed to find himself in the midst of the No. 2 story on the New York Times home page.


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