Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Supervisors Debate Sales Tax Hike

Does the board have the 12 votes needed to approve this critical measure?

By - Jul 19th, 2023 09:47 am

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

On Monday, two committees of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors made a formal recommendation that the full board pass a 0.4% increase in the local countywide sales tax.

The recommendations were needed to advance the legislative process before a final vote by the full county board on Thursday, July 27. But the debate, and even the narrow vote of the Committee on Finance, show the board is still divided on an issue that is, in some sense, an existential one for their body.

The vote would be the culmination of many years of work by county leaders to secure the authority to increase the local sales tax and begin to address the structural budget deficit that has plagued the county for more than a decade. That deficit, created by an imbalance in the amount of revenue the county collects and the annual cost to maintain the government, is expected to reach unprecedented levels over the next five years.

County Executive David Crowley worked with City of Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and a coalition of partners in the private and public sector to negotiate with the Republicans that control the state Legislature for the authority to raise the sales tax. “After years of advocacy, we’ve been given a tool to avert a looming financial disaster that threatens services and quality of life throughout the county,” Crowley said in a statement after the committees recommended the sales tax increase.

The meetings Monday included some supervisors who aren’t on either committee, but attended to discuss the issue. And it was clear that many board members are still in the same place: a handful are clear about their intention to vote yes, others clear about their opposition, and another larger group of supervisors aren’t ready or willing to take a position on the most important policy issue for the county of the last decade.

At the meeting Monday, several supervisors showed interest in delaying the vote until August or later, including Sequanna Taylor, Priscilla E. Coggs-Jones, Kathleen Vincent and Juan Miguel Martinez, who made an unsuccessful motion to delay the matter until September.

Sup. Vincent said she is facing opposition from her constituents to the sales tax increase and expressed concern about having to make a decision without the full support of her constituents. “Because for me to go in there as a freshman supervisor, and make this big decision without the input of my constituency just does not seem right,” Vincent said.

Sup. Patti Logsdon said that she would not take a public position until she finished her final town hall with county residents.

Martinez has previously expressed firm opposition to the sales tax, but at Monday’s meeting his position appeared to soften. “This has been a very, very difficult decision as a first termer. The simple fact of the matter is that I was hoping for more time to decide to vote on this.”

Sup. Ryan Clancy, who has opposed the sales tax since before enabling legislation was signed by the governor, once again shared his position. “What it comes down to is that sales taxes, despite the weak exemptions that Wisconsin have, fall disproportionately on the poor and working class,” Clancy said. “This sales tax is regressive.”

Clancy indicated that he thought the county should hold out for new Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz to be seated and for a potential future when the court invalidates the state’s legislative maps and they are redrawn fairer. The supervisor said he thought the county’s financial troubles aren’t as time-sensitive as the cities. “The breathless list of concerns that we’ve heard are years away,” he said.

Sup. Willie Johnson, Jr. responded to Clancy saying, “There has been a delay since 2008.” The supervisor said the county should have had a sales tax increase long ago.

Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun was invited to offer her opinion on the potential for fair maps being a gateway to a better deal on shared revenue and funding with the state. Daun told supervisors that such a future relies on a number of assumptions about the court taking up the matter, the federal appeals process, the outcome of potential review by the U.S. Supreme Court, lawsuits and the actual process of redrawing the maps among other things. “My best professional estimate, assuming every case were to be won, in favor of more fair maps, as opposed to legislative autocracy, would be at least five years,” Daun said.

Sup. Steven Shea said these considerations were “theoretical” while the very real impact of further deep cuts to transit and the parks system were sitting before them. “People depend on Milwaukee County Transit for basic survival,” Shea said. “So let’s keep that in mind.”

Sup. Shawn Rolland, is one of a handful of supervisors, including Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson and Liz Sumner, who have publicly stated their support for the sales tax increase from the beginning. Rolland said Nicholson, Crowley and Mayor Johnson have been a model of public service and “achieved the impossible” in getting Republicans in the state Legislature to give the county authority to raise the sales tax.

I’ve heard this characterized as a difficult vote,” Rolland said. “I don’t think so. I would characterize it as the responsible vote.”

Rolland listed the many county services that would be gutted or cut if the sales tax increase is not approved. “I mean, this is not a hard vote. This is a responsible vote that will help seniors, help children, veterans, workers, people who are homeless, people in our care, people with mental health needs, victims of crime, people experiencing an active emergency,” he said.

Sup. Martinez called Rolland’s comments “condescending” and said, “it is most definitely a difficult vote.” Martinez said his constituents are poor and working class and while the sales tax goes up their wages will not.

Rolland said he didn’t aim to make anyone “uncomfortable” and said the issue being discussed is a serious topic and, “I feel like I’m hearing a lot of unserious conversation happening about wanting to delay, but unclear what the delay would help to correct, what information that people need.”

Half of our bus routes would be cut,” Rolland said. “Half of them would be cut if we do not pass this. Half. Really feel that and know that.”

Sup. Steve Taylor, who joined Sequanna Taylor and Martinez in voting against a recommendation to approve the sales tax increase, said his vote could change by the time the issue is before the full board. He also repeated hs concerns that the suburban communities he represents already don’t see enough of the tax revenue they contribute to the county come back through investment in parks and other county amenities and infrastructure. He also expressed distrust for how his colleagues on the board would spend the new revenue.

The vote coming before the board is complicated, Sup. Caroline Gómez-Tom said, as the board was having to weigh constituent opinion against the future of government services. “I don’t take this vote or any vote lightly and I encourage everyone to do what they need to do to make sure that they feel comfortable.”

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Categories: MKE County

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