Commentary: Let the locals decide

Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol

Last updated on October 3rd, 2019 at 10:44 am

Who should decide how high local tax rates should be to fund local government? Local officials and local residents, or legislators in the state Capitol?

Several Milwaukee leaders from the city, county, Milwaukee County suburbs and business community want to increase the county’s sales tax to 6.5% (from 5.6% currently) to provide more funding for local government and to lower property taxes.

A debate has already begun about whether or not this is a good idea. But let’s set that aside for now.

Because first we should be asking this question: who decides?

Some opponents of a sales tax increase say the state Legislature should save Milwaukee from itself and refuse to allow a referendum. A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the proposal will be a “tough sell.” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, (who recently announced he’s running for Congress), said, “I’d be shocked if this thing really got any momentum.”

Bear in mind, the Legislature is being asked to allow a referendum for a sales tax increase; they are not being asked to increase the sales tax. Voters would decide the matter.

If school districts can hold referendums to increase their property taxes, why can’t a county hold a referendum to increase its sales tax without first getting the authority to do so from state government? By the way, Milwaukee Public Schools is also considering plans for a referendum to seek a tax increase.

School referendums often pass and those that say our taxes in Wisconsin are already too high hate them. But isn’t it best to have local people make decisions about how much they should be taxed? They’re the ones who know about the needs of their particular community.

To hold this referendum, Milwaukee area officials will have to get support from some Legislators who live far away from Milwaukee, in communities that are very different than the state’s largest city. Does that really make sense? Should Milwaukee officials have input in whether or not communities Up North can ask residents for a sales tax increase?

This will indeed be a “tough sell.” It will be a tough sell to convince the Republican-controlled Legislature to even allow a referendum, and then it would be a tough sell to convince voters to approve a sales tax increase. But local officials should be given the opportunity to state their case and allow local voters to decide.

Republicans in the Legislature are not going to listen to Milwaukee Democrats, so any chance a sales tax increase proposal does go to referendum probably will depend on support from the business community. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce has thrown its full support behind the idea.

“To provide property tax relief, maintain critical services and support our infrastructure, MMAC supports making a case to voters that this is a necessary and sound investment in the future of the entire metro area,” said MMAC president Tim Sheehy.

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Andrew Weiland
Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.