Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How David Crowley Led on Sales Tax

The inside story of how the county exec and mayor helped pass state legislation to save Milwaukee.

By - Aug 23rd, 2023 11:20 am
County Executive David Crowley 2023 State of the County. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

County Executive David Crowley 2023 State of the County. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

David Crowley began working in the county executives’ office three weeks before he actually took office.

He was elected on April 13, 2020 and was supposed to take office in May. “You usually get a break,” time to relax after the campaign, he noted, but Crowley and his predecessor Chris Abele agreed that the new county exec should get started immediately. So the two worked together for three weeks until May 4, the official start of Crowley’s term as county exec.

Crowley had served two terms as a Democratic Assembly member from Milwaukee and says, “I understood where Milwaukee County was financially.” But he was still surprised at how desperate things looked. “We didn’t have the money to move forward,” he noted.

He had campaigned on the need to lobby the state Legislature for more state shared revenue and/or a county sales tax hike, but found he first needed to address relationships closer to home.

His biggest surprise was how bad the relations were between the county board and former county executive Abele. “I understood then how much of a challenge it was.” Within a year he had members of the board praising the improved relationship.

“I also worked to build relationships with other municipalities in Milwaukee County.” And with business leaders like Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

He would would need all the partners he could get to convince Republican legislators who rarely showed much sympathy for Milwaukee, to hear Crowley’s plea for help. In the early going the response from them was very chilly: “At first we heard, ‘this is not going to happen.'”

That and the pandemic’s restrictions on face-to-face meetings slowed down progress until 2021.

From the beginning Crowley understood he had to make this about more than Milwaukee, to enlist all counties in Wisconsin to push for more state shared revenue. “The Wisconsin Counties Association was very helpful,” he notes. “Their ability to connect to all counties and explain what the future would be like for them without revenue reform.”

But the WCA also understood how unique Milwaukee was in terms of its financial challenges, due the costs of its infamous pension plan.

That was also something Crowley had to make clear to legislators, that he was part of an entirely new generation of county leaders who had inherited this mess. “Whenever you talk about raising taxes that’s a tough issue, but when we showed them how the pension costs are holding us back that helped make our case.”

More than a year after Crowley began working on the issue, in December 2021, Ald. Cavalier Johnson became Acting Mayor of Milwaukee and joined the cause. He was soon pushing for the city, which faced an equally perilous financial future. to get more state shared revenue and its own sales tax. In April 2022, Johnson won election as mayor, promising “to get a cot in the Capitol” to work on the issue.

That meant more hands held out for help from the state, but it also meant a bigger coalition working the issue. “Partnerships are always helpful to get something down,” Crowley notes. The two spent many hours working together.

Besides the City of Milwaukee, the lobbying groups for cities and towns, like the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, were also working the issue.

“I would characterize the work of the Mayor and County Executive as decisive in the efforts to get the legislation passed,” said Joel Brennan, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, which was also involved in the effort, in a statement to Urban Milwaukee. “The two were equal partners in the lobbying, and they were effective. The County Executive’s experience in Madison was a plus, but there are so many new members – especially Republicans – that both he and the mayor needed to develop lots of new relationships in a hurry.”

With its smaller and thus more gerrymandered districts, the Assembly was probably the toughest to lobby. “You’re talking about 99 different individuals,” said Crowley, “so the issue was how do we convince the individual legislators.”

All this was going on even as the reelection campaign for Gov. Tony Evers began to ramp up, with a tough fight against Republican Tim Michels. “When we began to see the shared revenue issue softening up, that was during the campaign,” Crowley noted.

Still, he adds, “Evers’ reelection was a significant help to get this legislation passed.”

It also complicated things as Evers and Republican legislative leaders were having separate meetings even as Crowley and Johnson were meeting with GOP leaders. “When negotiations started really heating up I was coming up to Madison twice a week for meetings.”

The biggest sticking point for Crowley in the negotiations was the size of the sales tax hike. “It was a tough issue.” The original language gave only a 0.375% increase and Crowley wanted 0.5%. They eventually compromised at 0.4%.

Whereas the city was forced to end all DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts in order to get the sales tax, the county was not. Crowley believes it helped that early in his tenure he changed the county’s Office of African American Affairs to the Office of Equity, with a broader purview, including concern for senior citizens.

Nor was the county forced to maintain the current level of law enforcement officers, as the city has to with regard to the police. That may have been because of the political clout of the police union versus the sheriffs.

Crowley agreed to a rule restricting the county from spending more than 5% of its budget on culture and entertainment, knowing the county spends only about 1% of its budget on this. “I think a lot of people don’t understand exactly what the county does.”

But he had to give in to a rule requiring a super majority vote of the board to approve spending for any new program. “That’s something we fought against.” But all told he got a deal with fewer restrictions than the mayor did.

And while the Milwaukee Common Council quickly moved to approve a 2% sales tax, the county board seemed wary of approving a much smaller tax hike. Crowley and Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson put in many hours lobbying supervisors to turn the board around. “The chairwoman was just magnificent,” Crowley says.

Crowley also spreads the credit for passage of the state legislation to include business leaders, Milwaukee’s philanthropic community and nonprofits and research by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Research Forum — “they have been telling our story for at least a decade.”

Brennan notes that Sheehy and the MMAC “were very effective as well, but this could not have gotten done without the mayor and county executive and their deep, personal engagement.”

Sheehy heaped on more praise: “Both County Executive Crowley and Mayor Johnson did a masterful job,” he told Urban Milwaukee. “And bear in mind they held few cards in the Legislature. They both built and nurtured relationships, pressing their case. No matter what they do going forward, we will look back on this as one of their strongest achievements.”

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

One thought on “Murphy’s Law: How David Crowley Led on Sales Tax”

  1. dk mke says:

    Great story. We don’t have to agree on everything to make progress.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us