Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele is backing a $60 annual fee increase for vehicle registrations to pay for the transit system and transportation projects.I emphasized that last part because I think it shows the real problem that exists here. Whether it's by accident or by tactics, Abele's massive wheel tax draws attention to how legislators in the State Capitol hamstring the ability of local governments to raise their own revenues, and makes the wheel tax one of the few choices that are left to take. And years of neglect from Madison and Milwaukee have meant that there needs to be a drastic boost in the fee just to keep things afloat.
That fee on vehicle registrations for county residents would raise an estimated $27 million a year, according to a June county budget office report. The proposal would generate about $15 million a year for the transit system capital spending, including replacement buses, and highway, parkway and bridge construction work, according to Abele’s office. About $11.5 million would pay for bus system operations and a modified version of the GO Pass system.
Abele’s office in July called the wheel tax the only locally available option to create a dedicated source of transportation money. A registration fee increase does not require approval from the Wisconsin Legislature, a practically insurmountable hurdle that faces other options, such as a sales tax increase.
Abele's calls for such a massive increase led to immediate blowback from some Milwaukee County Supervisors, including Transportation Chair Michael Mayo, who said Abele put this idea together in secret and didn't get input from County Board members. Another critic was Supervisor/AM radio muppet Deanna Alexander, who complained that users of the County's no-cost bus pass for disabled customers wouldn't pay anything toward this, and also said that legislators in Madison should do their part to make sure "solutions" like a $60 wheel tax aren't needed.
Although the County Executive’s press statement indicated a plan to convert the wheel tax to a value-based assessment system, Supervisor Alexander sees little upcoming relief. “Once people get comfortable paying $60 per year in extra taxes, do they think the bill is ever going to go down? Most certainly not! If anything, the tax for those with nicer or newer vehicles will be multiplied under the intention of fairness,” she said.Hmmm, that last part sounds familiar. Where have I heard it? Oh yeah! The Milwaukee County people approved of such a plan in an advisory referendum in 2008 that would have put in a 1% sales tax for just the items Alexander indicated.
“This is unlike dedicated sales tax funding, which I would be willing to explore if the State of Wisconsin would grant Milwaukee County the option to consider. Unlike this wheel tax, at least dedicated sales tax funding would share the cost of maintaining parks, museums, and transit services with the visitors to Milwaukee who help create demand for those amenities,” said Alexander.
So why doesn't Milwaukee County have such a sales tax today? Because a certain Milwaukee County Executive named SCOTT WALKER publicly demanded that the State Legislature and Governor Jim Doyle not do it, and Doyle stupidly vetoed a provision in the 2009 state budget that would have added a 0.65% sales tax for Milwaukee County. Legislative Dems didn't jam through a replacement bill in the rest of the session, showcasing the timidity that helped lead to Walker's and WisGOP's big wins in 2010, leading to the wreck that is Wisconsin government today.
So now we flash forward a few years, and Milwaukee County is the largest of many local governments throughout the state that have deteriorating roads and transit after nearly 6 years of defunding from now-Gov Walker and the WisGOP Legislature, and numerous local governments have or will institute wheel taxes to allow those goods to be maintained while staying within the tight property tax restrictions imposed by the WisGOPs in the Capitol. But in Milwaukee County in particular, I amazingly find myself agreeing with Charlie Sykes' wind-up doll Deanna Alexander, and don't think the wheel tax isn't the right answer, let alone one that's $60.
The reason I say this is partially due to the fact that Milwaukee is one of the few communities in the state where having a car isn't that necessary, especially if the transit system is strong and interconnected. This means that many residents could avoid paying the wheel tax, and have the burdens fall harder on a smaller percentage of individuals. Those individuals are more likely to be in suburbs which are less connected to transit, and need cars to perform everyday errands like grocery shopping vs people in the city who live in high-density areas that often have easier, immediate access to such places without need for a car.
But even more than that, Milwaukee County would benefit from a sales tax more than most places in Wisconsin. Milwaukee holds events that attract many people from outside the area, as evidenced by the fact that it grabs the most tourist dollars out of any county in Wisconsin, and those individuals use the city's and county's services while they are there. It only seems fair that those tourists and 262ers that come into Milwaukee County pay for some of the entertainment and quality of life that they come there for. The old system of relying on state taxes and shared revenues isn't working, and likely won't work as long as the anti-city ALEC crew is in charge. So why not allow Milwaukee County to raise its own revenues with a sales tax, and then if you ALEC boys want to include a requirement that property taxes stay low, I think that's a decent trade.
The numbers definitely add up for a sales tax in Milwaukee County. In 2015, we see that over $70 million was raised by Milwaukee County's 0.5% sales tax, so if that relationship holds, a 0.25% increase would raise $35 million in additional revenue- more than the $27 million that the $60 wheel tax would raise.
Which leads me to think that Abele isn't being serious when he's proposing this $60 wheel tax. What he's really trying to do is show just how desperate the situation is in Milwaukee County for funding its transportation needs, and how the WisGOP pattern of neglect has messed things up. If so, it's kind of brilliant makes for a great issue for Dems to run on in the next month, as the state's largest newspaper and other Milwaukee media will give attention to this issue because of the huge wheel tax.
I'd especially like to hear what ALEC GOPs like Sen. Leah Vukmir, Sen. Alberta Darling, soon-to-be Sen. Daniel Craig, Rep. Dale (Koo-Koo) Kooyenga, Rep. Rob Hutton, Rep. Joe SanFelippo, Rep. Jim Ott, Rep. Janel Brandtjen, Rep. Dan Knodl, and Rep. Jessie Rodriguez have to say about this. All of these GOPs "represent" parts of Milwaukee County in their gerrymandered districts, and their suburban constituents would be the ones most likely to have to pay the new wheel tax. It's a simple question "Do you think Milwaukee County residents should pay a $60 wheel tax to pay for roads and transit, or is putting in a small increase in the sales tax a better idea?"
And if their answer is "neither", then ask them if they want Milwaukee County infrastructure to fall apart. These are the only options left at this point, and GOPs can't be left off the hook for their main role in causing this problem that's especially acute in Milwaukee County, but afflicting a whole lot of other places throughout the state.