No taxation without representation

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:42 pm

It seems like hunting season is now a year-round sport in Wisconsin. Instead of going for the four-legged variety, people are taking aim at something far more endangered – the elusive greenback. You don’t need to buy a license to pursue the greenbacks. It’s obviously open season on people floating ideas to raise additional revenue for needed projects from public safety, transportation, parks, etc. While it’s politically unpopular to touch the sales and property taxes, some of these proposals have set their sights on some of the more “vulnerable” tax targets such as the car rental and hotel tax.

There’s no denying that we have quality-of-life issues in our community that need addressing. However, we believe these projects should be reviewed on a coordinated basis at the city, county and even regional level. Where are our priorities and which projects represent the best return on our tax dollar?

It’s disappointing that nowhere in any of these discussions is there talk or serious consideration about our local $2.4 billion tourism industry (one of the three-legs of our state economic stool), the 60,000-plus jobs this industry maintains in the greater Milwaukee area and the $390 million it generates in annual state and local taxes. 

High-profile projects such as the Harley-Davidson Museum and the Potawatomi Bingo Casino expansion will pump hundreds of millions more into our local economy, and create thousands of construction and permanent jobs. These venues are examples of community assets and attractions that bring millions of visitors and new dollars into our community and will help to improve the quality of life for all of us who call this region home.

In this race for these precious dollars, the expansion of the Midwest Airlines Center should also receive its due consideration. A feasibility study will soon determine if a larger convention center (we’re now the smallest among all major cities in the Midwest) will expand our tax base and create more jobs by bringing more visitors to Milwaukee.

Car rental and hotel taxes may seem “easy picking” for some of the initiatives recently being tossed around, but these taxes should be the funding sources earmarked for expanding our tourism base, creating jobs and new tax revenues. Raising our hotel tax to 17.6 percent, as suggested, to fund the county bus system would make us among the highest-taxed among U.S. cities and not generate any new tourism dollars.

If all of these proposed taxes on rental cars and hotels were enacted, there would be no room to raise taxes further in support of a convention center expansion, which could prove to be one of the most logical and impactful investments we could make for our future.

If the convention center feasibility study supports an expansion as another tool to grow our local economy, the tourism-related taxes should continue to be allocated for these purposes. Investing in our tourism infrastructure and remaining price competitive to the traveling public will create new jobs, expand our tax base and have the net benefit of improving the quality of life for all residents.

In the governor’s new budget, he proposed the establishment of a “premier resort area.” This funding mechanism, if approved by the state legislature, would give the mayor and the common council the authority to designate a four-square-mile section of the city as a tourism zone and enact a .5 percent sales tax on goods and services sold in that area.

“We must continue to look for new ways to grow tourism in Milwaukee,” Gov. Jim Doyle said when introducing this measure.

We can’t agree with him more. But we need more information to determine if this new tax mechanism would actually grow our local tourism economy or create a “tax island” that, along with the other proposed taxes, could ultimately impede our efforts to attract more visitors to the area. We’ll continue to monitor this proposal as it moves through the legislature and work with our elected officials to thoroughly study the ramifications of this in the event that this initiative moves forward.

A lot of ideas. A lot of new taxes. Instead of “cherry picking” individual pet projects, the public and private sector need to put all of these needs on the table (perhaps through some unified vs. fractured initiatives) and come up with some fair, equitable and “creative” funding solutions based upon their importance in moving Milwaukee forward.

Before we’re so quick to pull the trigger, let’s just make sure we’re taking careful aim at the right targets.


Doug Neilson is president and chief executive officer of Visit Milwaukee. Additional information is available at

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