Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) speaks to reporters after testifying on April 25, 2023. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
Wisconsin’s top Republican lawmakers are split over how Milwaukee and Milwaukee County will get approval for additional sales taxes meant to pay for unfunded pension obligations. The divide leaves a potential deal on a bill to increase the state’s funding for local governments up in the air.
Assembly Republicans passed an amended version of a bill that would increase local government funding by a minimum of 15% on Wednesday. The bill kept the requirement that Milwaukee and Milwaukee County get voter approval to adopt an additional 2% sales tax in the city and a 0.375% sales tax in the county, despite concerns from local officials that a referendum would fail.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said on Wednesday it was a “bottom line” for his caucus from the beginning.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) told reporters on Thursday morning, however, that the Senate version of the bill likely won’t include the referendum requirement. He said a referendum would not fix the problems in Milwaukee because he thinks a referendum vote would fail. He said he instead supports allowing the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board to vote on approving the taxes.
Vos told the Associated Press that a bill would not pass the Assembly if it doesn’t include the referendum requirement.
“That could unfortunately kill the bill and all of our good work,” Vos said. “Requiring voter approval for enacting a new tax, which was included in the original Evers proposal, should not be all that controversial.”
Vos said on Wednesday ahead of the Assembly vote that his caucus was “done negotiating” on the bill and they would not accept any other substantial changes to the bill. His statement contradicted that of Gov. Tony Evers, who said ahead of the floor session that he was looking forward to continuing negotiations “in the weeks ahead.”
LeMahieu said he knew Vos wanted a final bill but had “no idea” that Vos was going to insist that negotiations were over.
“You know there are two houses in the state Legislature, and it’s unfortunate that [Vos] is drawing a line in the sand now with his version of the bill and stopping negotiations on a bill that not everybody is in agreement on,” LeMahieu said at a press conference recorded by Channel 3000. “We’re going to do our due diligence and make sure we have a bill that at least all the stakeholders can get behind.”
LeMahieu said the bill will go through the committee process and his goal is to continue to work with the governor and Vos, “if he’s willing to work with us down the road.” He added that they’ll look to pass a bill with the votes of the 22 Senate Republicans and some Senate Democrats.
“If the Assembly at some point refuses to take up that bill — a bill that is going to make generational change to townships, counties, municipalities all around the state — [Vos] is going to have to answer to his caucus at that point,” LeMahieu said.
Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback said on Thursday afternoon that Evers agrees with LeMahieu that a referendum is untenable given Milwaukee’s financial needs and the other restrictions on local government included in the bill.
“The governor is willing to support allowing the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to increase the sales tax with a supportive vote by local elected officials who are accountable to local taxpayers,” Cudaback said in a Tweet. “Evers also appreciates Majority Leader LeMahieu’s willingness to keep working together and looks forward to continuing negotiations toward making significant investments in local communities across our state.”
LeMahieu said the bill has been referred to the Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection Committee, which will likely have a hearing on the bill in the next week or so. He said the committee will consider the original bill, which included a minimum 10% increase for all local governments. He said his goal is to have the bill come to the floor in a couple of weeks.
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