While defending the proposal to allow cities and counties to raise their sales taxes, Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason) sparked controversy when she said that if her constituents rejected a local referendum to raise taxes, they were “not smart.” She later clarified and said she was sniping at Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) after he remarked that his constituents were smart for voting to reduce property taxes.
As a Milwaukeean who supports Governor Tony Evers’s sales tax proposal, this is extremely frustrating. A key point of the proposal is that any increase would have to pass a referendum, which means that the people could very well say, “no, thank you.” That does not make them dumb, it may just mean that those specific communities have a different vision for what services their local governments should be providing.
Secondly, it is frustrating that Bewley let her ego get in the way of getting the sales tax proposal through the Republican-held legislature. Vos didn’t even say anything that I would have considered offensive, yet she just had to get a sarcastic word in while she’s supposed to be winning his support. Talk about “not smart.”
But while Vos was rightly taken aback by Bewley’s ill-advised retort, he may be wandering into the same erroneous mindset with the comments he made after the meeting. He said that there was zero chance that the sales tax proposal was going to happen, calling it “dead on arrival.”
Again, a key component of the sales tax proposal is that the voters would have to approve any sales tax increase in their jurisdiction. Why would Vos be against the ability for residents to determine what revenues their municipalities or counties should be able to raise, unless he thinks they are “not smart” enough to vote the way he believes they should?
Even though the Wisconsin League of Municipalities endorsed the proposal, Vos specifically mentioned Milwaukee as the main culprit for why it is being asked for in the first place. It is true that things have been mismanaged in Milwaukee; there is very little doubt about that. Most Milwaukee politicians railed against policies such as Act 10, without which the city’s fiscal crisis would be ten times worse than what it is today, specifically the pension crisis. But that does not mean we can just let the city crash and burn as penalty for its past errors. There are a lot of great people that live here and we need help.
The city is currently paying $71 million for pension obligations but by 2023 it will be $160 million, a spike that will result in deep cuts to services such as the Police and Fire Departments. Already Milwaukee is having to cut between 100 and 150 police officers per year to make the budget work. Homicides, shootings, and reckless driving are on the rise, so the police department cuts come at an especially inopportune time. The Fire Department is also stretched thin leading to an increase in structure fires and fire-related deaths as it has had to pause door-to-door fire prevention efforts.
Earlier this year, Milwaukee’s Common Council was debating accepting the COPS Grant because the city was apprehensive about being on the hook for the officers it would provide after three years (when the pension crisis will hit) per the grant’s terms. But many of us in Milwaukee emailed, called, and knocked on doors to get our aldermen to support it, hoping that the state would look upon us with mercy if they saw that we weren’t just trying to “defund the police.” We were successful and the Common Council ended up accepting the grant.
But now we need the state to cover our rear, otherwise it will be the Wisconsin Legislature that is “defunding our police.”
That assistance can come one of two or even both ways. The first way would be to allow the people of Milwaukee to empower our Common Council to raise new revenues through a sales tax with a referendum. This gives us local control, and truly gives the people the power to determine the city’s destiny, rather than politicians who work in Madison that don’t live here AND big tax-and-spend Milwaukee politicians. No sales tax could be raised unless the people ask for it.
The other way is that the city can continue to be overly dependent on state welfare through the shared revenue program, from which we would need a substantial increase in order to avoid disastrous cuts to city services. As a Milwaukeean, I would like to see both options employed for the city, but at the very least we should get the ability to determine our sales tax through referendum.
Milwaukee is a city with lots of potential. The residents just need to be given the tools that other cities in the country have: a much more blended revenue structure, including a sales tax.
We can solve our problems if we are given the power to do so through referendum. Speaker Vos, we the people are smart enough to handle it.
Jordan Morales is a conservative writer in Milwaukee. He has written for Newsmax, the Centennial Institute, and the Hispanic Conservative. He can be reached on Twitter: @Morales4MKE