Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson giving testimony at the Thursday hearing. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
Gov. Tony Evers threatened on Thursday to veto Republicans’ plan to increase local government funding by at least 10% if it was passed in its current state, saying the state has the resources to provide more and asking for a “clean” bill — free of the requirements and limitations on local authority that are included in the current version.
The announcement came as Assembly Republicans moved ahead with the bill, holding a hearing in the Assembly Local Government committee that included testimony from the bill’s authors, Milwaukee leaders and mayors from across the state.
“It is not enough resources,” Evers said in a statement. “We have the resources to do it. Let’s increase the money that’s going to the locals. And, frankly, also, let’s remove all those restrictions that the legislation was putting on those local folks.”
“Here we, in one way, we want to bring them more money, and in another way, we want to take more control away from them. It doesn’t make sense,” Evers continued.
The bill, which was released in full less than 48 hours ahead of the hearing on Thursday, would dedicate one cent — or 20% — of Wisconsin’s five-cent sales tax to local government funding, a point that both Evers and leaders in the Republican-led Legislature have agreed on.
Under Republicans’ plan, around $226 in additional aid would be distributed to counties and local municipalities under a new formula. That money will only be allowed to be used for costs associated with law enforcement, fire protection, emergency medical services, emergency response communications, public works and transportation. The bill would also use $300 million to create a pilot grant program meant to encourage local governments to share services.
Milwaukee and Milwaukee County would be able to adopt additional temporary sales taxes to address its unfunded pension liabilities, though the taxes would need to be approved by voters through referendum and funds from the tax would have several requirements attached.
Chair of the committee Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) acknowledged Evers’ threat during the hearing, asking the bill co-authors if “the other side” had been involved in negotiations.
“As soon as I hit the gavel, the governor put out a press release threatening to veto this, I just want to make it clear to everyone here, they’ve been involved…,” Novak said. “And there will be some adjustments and changes to this bill, correct?”
“It’s part of the sausage making, representative,” bill co-author Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) criticized Evers’ veto threat in a joint statement.
“After several weeks of meetings and negotiations with all parties involved – Democrats, Republicans, towns, villages, cities and counties – we reached a shared revenue proposal we believe the public will support,” the lawmakers stated. “It’s very disappointing to come so close to the finish line only to have the Governor publicly issue veto threats because he wants to spend more money.”
The Republican leaders said Evers should reconsider and work with them before the bill is brought to the Assembly floor.
While Republicans have emphasized that the plan is bipartisan, there were no Democratic lawmakers co-sponsoring the bill as of Thursday. Asked about Vos’ characterization of the bill as “bipartisan,” a representative from Vos’ office pointed to “Democrat local officials at nearly all of our regional press conferences we had last week, most notably Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.”
No Democratic lawmakers attended the Madison press conference or were on stage for the Milwaukee press conference.
The bill’s coauthors Felzkowski, Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) and Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) told the committee that negotiations are still ongoing and changes could still be made to the bill.
While many speakers told the committee that the conversations about increasing shared revenue and the bill are a sign of progress, many also expressed concerns about some of the requirements and other limitations on local authority attached to the additional funding in the bill.
Milwaukee county and city leaders ask for changes
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson told the committee on Thursday that the financial situation in the city is dire. “Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s only first-class metropolitan city. It’s unique among major American cities in having just one source of tax revenue. That combined with other factors has my city on a path to catastrophic budget cuts,” Johnson said. “Our costs for public safety including the cost for police officer and firefighter pensions continue to climb far faster than the rate of inflation.”
Republicans’ bill would allow Milwaukee to adopt a 2% sales tax and Milwaukee County to adopt a 0.375% sales tax on top of its 0.5% sales to address unfunded pension liabilities. Both would need to be approved by voters through referendum. It would also start a “soft close” of the city’s pension system, requiring new employees to move into the state’s pension system
Johnson told the committee that it was his “strong preference that the bill be amended to allow the city’s common council to enact the sales tax,” saying that he has grave concerns about whether it would pass given that several referenda have failed in nearby communities in recent years.
The tax would generate an estimated $180 million for the city of Milwaukee to address its pension obligations and public safety costs.
Johnson noted the potential referendum is a complicated question related to a tax increase, public safety and the pension system. He said he doesn’t think the city has the bandwidth to give Milwaukee residents a complete understanding of what a potential referendum would be asking, and pointed out that recent referenda related to public safety failed in Racine and Washington County. He said Milwaukee’s Common Council members can make informed and timely decisions for the constituents who elected them.
There are also several requirements attached to levying the tax including a prohibition on using the funds to expand the city’s street car or to fund positions that are meant to promote individuals on the basis of their race, color, ancestry, national origin or sexual orientation, requiring Milwaukee Public Schools to hire at least 25 school resource officers and requiring the city to maintain the current staffing levels for law enforcement and fire departments.
“There are some provisions in the bill which I and others have strong aversion to,” Johnson told the committee. “I want local elected officials to make decisions about purely local matters, so when it comes to where police are deployed to what transportation options may exist or how civilian oversight of the police department is structured, I ask that you leave those types of issues in the hands of Milwaukee.”
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley told the committee, “There’s still more work to be done within this bill, but I would say that greater flexibility in any capacity in local government will be good.”
Statewide limitations on local authority and other requirements
Concerns about the requirements and limitations that would be put on local governments across the state if the current version of the bill passes were a focus during the hearing.
Rep. Sue Conley (D-Janesville) asked the bill authors about one provision that requires local governments to maintain a level of law enforcement and fire and emergency medical services that is at least equivalent to that provided in the previous year.
Under that requirement, a local government would need to maintain two of four criteria or it would lose 15% of its aid: the amount of money allocated, the number of officers, the number of traffic tickets issued or the number of arrests made and citations issued
“Two [criteria] are about issuing tickets from traffic violations and from arrests. In my community we take pride in lowering those things, not maintaining those numbers. We want to reduce crime in our community,” Conley said. “This feels a little bit like a quota, like you’re setting a quota around these things.”
Kurtz said that was not the intent of the bill and there could be some changes made to the requirements.
Under Republicans’ plan, local health officials would be prohibited from issuing mandates to close a business for longer than 14 days in order to control an outbreak of a disease unless an extension is granted by a local governing body. Extensions would be prohibited from being longer than 14 days.
The Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards (WALHDAB) and the Wisconsin Public Health Association (WPHA), which represent over 1,200 local health professionals, called for the removal of the provision, saying it could adversely affect community health, impact how local governments function and jeopardize privacy of businesses and people.
“In the rare instance when a local health officer orders the temporary closure of a business, it is necessary to protect the business and its customers from important communicable diseases,” the group said in a statement. “Restricting a local health officer’s ability to control the spread of a disease to 14 days is arbitrary and dangerous. Each communicable disease has its own specific time frame for contagiousness and incubation which may exceed 14 days.”
Another provision would prohibit local municipalities or counties from holding advisory referenda. Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg told the committee that advisory referenda have been a “nice tool” for the city.
“Before my tenure, we used it to figure out if the citizens of Wausau would like a city administrator, and there was pretty robust feedback on that one. Our county board used it to see if our county would like medical marijuana as an advisory referendum, and I know that now that’s part of a discussion, that’s actually happening… I’ve had many people approaching me asking me about referenda that they want to see, but obviously, we want to leave that up to the council and the county board also.”
Felzkowski told the committee that the inclusion of provisions such as these are a result of needing to get the votes to pass it.
“It has got to get 50 votes in the Assembly and 17 votes in the Senate, right?” Felzkowski said.
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