Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Republican Bill Limits Wheel Tax

Local wheel taxes increased 73% in 2017; bill requires referendum approval.

By - Jan 15th, 2018 10:49 am
Cars crossing the Pleasant Street Lift Bridge. Photo by Michael Horne.

Cars crossing the Pleasant Street Lift Bridge. Photo by Michael Horne.

Local governments across Wisconsin – ranging from the Village of Tigerton (population 716) to Milwaukee County (population 957,735) – are “rushing” to levy wheel taxes, as one state senator put it. And this could set off fireworks in the Legislature.

A proposal pushed by two GOP lawmakers – Rep. Michael Schraa of Oshkosh and Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater – that could limit current and future wheel taxes recently got a public hearing. The bills would prohibit any local government from levying a wheel tax without advance permission from voters who pass a referendum. Referendums could only be held on regularly scheduled elections.

The more than 25 local governments who already charge a wheel tax, or who have approved one and will soon start collecting it, would have 18 months to schedule referendums to get voters’ approval.

State officials say local wheel taxes brought in $20.6 million last year – a one-year increase of 73 percent.

For example, $20 wheel taxes in 2016 brought in $6.75 million for the City of Milwaukee; Appleton, $1.35 million; Janesville, $1.08 million; Beloit, $583,012; Iowa County, $415,496, and Town of Arena in Dane County, 417,377.

“If you want to take more money from the people, ask them whether they want to pay more or not,” Nass told the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. Local governments are “rushing” to adopt wheel taxes, Nass complained.

Twelve local governments have adopted wheel taxes since 2016, including Dane County’s decision to start collecting a $28 per-vehicle tax on Oct. 1.

“It’s hard to argue that the people – the taxpayers – should not be consulted with this kind of fee increase,” added Schraa.

Local government officials say they need the option of wheel taxes to pay for soaring transportation-related costs, so the Legislature should not require referendums.

“Reject this unnecessary interference into policy decisions by local elected officials,” Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities told the Assembly committee.

Only about 1.3 percent of the 1,900 local governments that could adopt a wheel tax have done so, Witynski said. “Trust that locally elected officials will make the best decisions they can to adequately fund street maintenance and repair,” he added.

Asked about Dane County’s plan to raise $11.6 million a year by charging a $28 wheel tax, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi called it a “modest” surcharge and “less than a tank of gas.”

“As the fastest growing county in Wisconsin, Dane County is seeing greater demands placed on roads that a few years ago” and needs a “dedicated source of revenue,” Parisi said, adding:

“The cost to run the highway department – – mowing, plowing, and resurfacing our roads – is 20 percent more today than it was just a few years ago.”

But Nass told the Assembly committee of two examples where, he said, local officials abused current law:

*Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele ignored an April advisory referendum in which 72 percent of voters told county officials not to raise the $30 wheel tax adopted last year. Instead, Abele proposed raising an additional $14.7 million for this year’s budget by doubling the county’s wheel tax to $60 – an increase that Milwaukee County supervisors killed.

Abele was “circling back to try to get that [$60 tax] in place  – ignoring the will of the people,” Nass said.

*After Janesville voters voted down a $1.2 million transportation-funding referendum, Nass said city officials doubled the wheel tax, raising it from $10 to $20.

Even if voters defeat officials who adopt a wheel tax, it stays in place – and likely keeps going up, Nass said.

But in the case of Milwaukee County, Abele noted the referendum sponsored by the county board didn’t tell voters what the new tax would fund. The language of the proposed bill — whether it prevents telling voters what the money would be spent on — could have a big impact on whether such referendums succeed.

Witynski said the Legislature should look at “state and local taxation in a broad, holistic way” and not act on “one narrow, minor component of the system.”

Gov. Scott Walker and legislators cannot agree on long-term funding for state and local roads. A $75 surcharge on hybrid vehicles and a $100 surcharge on electric vehicles was approved, however.

That means a City of Milwaukee resident who owns an electric car will pay $225 to register it this year: the $75 state fee, a $100 surcharge, a $20 city wheel tax and a $30 county wheel tax.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

14 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Republican Bill Limits Wheel Tax”

  1. Colin Stuart says:

    Taxes are in place for a reason. If people had the chance to pay $0 for property tax or $8000, people would obviously pick the $0 option.
    You can’t ask people how much they should or want to pay on taxes, if they are told about the benefits or not, people always will pick the cheaper option, even if it’s good for themselves or not.

    The fact registration fees and gas taxes have no chance on automatically increasing or indexing with the environment around them is a huge problem.
    Walker and the rest of the GOP need to WAKE up and fix this fact.
    Ridiculous this has gone on as long as it has, and it needs to come to a stop.

  2. WashCoRepub says:

    Totally agree. This flies in the face of “Republican Freedom” and local choice… If communities want to jack up or enact wheel taxes, let them. It’s the responsibility of the residents to elect representatives that mirror their choices in fiscal matters such as this.

  3. Carl says:

    “If you want to take more money from the people, ask them whether they want to pay more or not,” – Steve Nass. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to pay $75 more in taxes for my Prius which uses less fossil fuel and produces less pollution.

    “It’s hard to argue that the people – the taxpayers – should not be consulted with this kind of fee increase,” – Michael Schraa. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to pay $75 more in taxes for my Prius which uses less fossil fuel and produces less pollution.

    These guys are hypocrites. They don’t want the federal government to interfere with state’s rights, but they want to interfere with local rights. They want total control.

    Let’s get rid of them.

  4. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Milwaukee, worst run city in country, naturally spends all it’s money of frills like trolleys, Bucks, then tax the poor with a wheel tax. They have wrecked the bus system and built a trolley instead.

  5. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Some one has to pay for the roads. Hybrids, electric cars must pay just as much as the other cars for the miles they travel or we will not have any roads. Pollution reduction does not help the roads, talk to Al Gore.
    Milwaukee has terrible roads case it mismanages their money, wrecks the bus system and blows it on toys.

  6. Carl says:


    Try reading the article again. I wouldn’t bet on it, but maybe you will understand it after you read it a second time. The issue is not the condition of the roads but whether taxpayers should be asked if they want to pay or not.

  7. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    That is stupid question, of course tax payers have to pay. The question is of the incompetence of Milwaukee and the way they mismanage their taxes, economy, bus service, employee goodies, pensions, bennies, trolleys.

  8. Carl says:


    Your continued irrelevant, non-sensical responses show that you are not bright enough to comprehend the issue the article raises.

  9. Sam says:

    Taxpayers have a voice, they’re called local elections.

    I have an idea, let’s abolish the state legislature, governorship, and supreme court. We’ll just put all decisions up to referendum.

    Localities wouldn’t have to resort to wheel taxes if the state didn’t steal local tax dollars. Restore shared revenue.

  10. mike says:

    So says the senator from Oshkosh, home to the most profligate, bloated, waste of tax payer money project north of Walker’s Zoo Interchange. Give me a break. If these clowns wanted to reign in finances, they’d take a hard look at the unfunded 3.5 billion were flushing EVERY STINKING YEAR in Walker highway pet projects (and comparable amount being squandered at the local level). What’s all that spending getting us besides a clear over-abundance of pathetic discount shopping? Certainly not population growth or improvements to middle class wages. What a boondoggle!

    We know the next generation isn’t going to keep all this tarmac, so it’s just waste. Projects with no future.

  11. TransitRider says:

    WCD, if Milwaukee has “wrecked … the bus system” (your words), that’s the work of your hero, Scott Walker. Don’t forget that he ran MCTS for nearly 9 years, from early 2002 through 2010. (Over that period, MCTS reduced bus service—”annual vehicle revenue miles”–by 21% and, in response, ridership—”annual unlinked trips”—dropped 38%.)

    The decline in MCTS bus service has nothing whatsoever to do with the new streetcar. First, it happened well before the streetcar was approved and it involves a totally different unit of government—the City owns and will operate the streetcar, while the buses are owned and operated by the County.

    The buses are subsidized by the County and State (but not by the City), while the streetcar will get zero dollars from either the County or State.

  12. Terry says:

    Career politician Scott Walker ran Milwaukee and now all of Wisconsin right into the ground. He got drunk on power and drove the beautiful old state right into the ditch. What a trainwreck this charlatan’s reign has been.

    But wait, in the distance, there is a Big Blue Wave forming, could it be a tsunami? Yes, it could be!

    And it just might finally wash all these republican charlatans and bamboozlers out to sea for good.
    Let us pray Wisconsin. Let us pray…

  13. sharon pendleton says:

    It looks as though the Petroleum Industry is the big shadow-caster over this whole highway mess. Why in the world would ANYONE suggest higher fees for alternative energy autos? Instead of supporting the effort to convert to electric/hybrid cars, they make it doubly difficult – gotta be the oil guys at the head of this parade.

  14. Morgan says:

    But every year we hear the same thing. We need more money. We need more money. The trolley was Tom Barrett’s Dream. He forced this to happen. All anyone has to do is look at what they put for an explanation for the $30 wheel tax on your license renewal to see that Milwaukee County is conning us. It says it goes to transportation related projects. That is the most vague statement ever. Way to be 100% honest with the citizens about where this money is going. It’s going in their back pockets first and foremost.

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