Milwaukee County sales tax referendum proposal gets hearing in Madison

Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol

Last updated on March 9th, 2020 at 01:17 pm

The organization championing an increase in Milwaukee County’s sales tax headed to Madison today to discuss a proposed referendum before the Wisconsin State Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee.

The legislation would give Milwaukee County voters a chance to decide whether they want a 1% sales tax increase through a binding vote.

The proposal was unveiled in October 2019 by Move Forward MKE, a coalition of local government officials, business leaders and community leaders intent on “rebalancing Milwaukee’s public funding mechanisms” by allowing local government “to generate the revenue it needs to adequately fund public services, maintain facilities and invest in the future,” the organization’s website states.

The organization’s proposal would bring in an additional $160 million in tax revenue in its first year – 25% of that would come from visitors and non-county residents, according to the group. However, voters would need to approve the plan before it would take effect.

Move Forward MKE members state Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) and state Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) presented the bill in front of committee members today.

“There’s no silver bullet or magic formula on how to fund local government,” Goyke said. “What I believe is that our current structure doesn’t work anymore. We need to empower local (governments) to control their destiny.”

The current Milwaukee County sales tax rate is 5.6%. However, Goyke and Johnson explained that even a 6.5% sales tax would still be among the lowest of similar sized counties nationwide. Looking at cities in the Midwest, Minneapolis has a sales tax of approximately 8%, Chicago at 10%, Detroit at 6% and Cleveland at 8%.

Johnson said she is concerned that the Milwaukee Police Department is stretched too thin during larger events such as Bucks games. She recalled a recent event in her district that took officers hours to respond, an incident that occurred during the Wisconsin State Fair.

“Let’s be honest, nobody wants to increase taxes of any kind. But when you are put in the position where you have to contemplate laying off police officers versus providing services to your community, you have to do something,” Johnson said.

In response to public safety concerns, state Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem) suggested Milwaukee County hold a referendum to increase the police and fire budget. She also admitted that a Milwaukee County sales tax would likely benefit her district, but added that the sales tax could be negative for Wisconsin as a whole.

“On the other hand, (Milwaukee is) an economic force in Wisconsin and I don’t want you to be an outlier,” Kerkman said. “On the one hand, the sales tax benefits me. On the other hand, I don’t want it to hurt our economy.

Under the proposed bill, groceries, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment would continue to be exempt from the new tax. However, committee members, such as state Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview), want to know more about exemptions since certain products, such as candy, are taxed differently.

“We have to have an honest conversation about what exemptions look like,” Macco said. “Until we have that conversation, it’s hard to talk about the base.”

If the Legislature approves the proposed bill, the Milwaukee County Board would need to approve it before being considered by voters.

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Brandon Anderegg
Brandon covers startups, technology, banking and finance. He previously worked as a general assignment and court reporter for The Freeman in Waukesha. Brandon graduated from UW-Milwaukee’s journalism, advertising and media studies program with an emphasis in journalism. He enjoys live music, playing guitar and loves to hacky sack.