Shared revenue shift: Bill will allow Milwaukee officials to vote on sales tax

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- In the high-stakes negotiations on a bill that would boost state aid for local government -- and allow Milwaukee to pursue desperately needed new revenue -- an amended version of the legislation will allow city and county elected officials to vote on new local sales taxes.

Three different sources in Milwaukee local government have told CBS 58 the shared revenue bill will put the Milwaukee sales tax vote, which has been the biggest sticking point at the state Capitol, in the hands of the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board.

The elected bodies would be required to approve the taxes with a two-thirds majority.

Assembly Republicans have already passed a bill that ensures all counties and municipalities would see at least a 15% increase in annual state aid. The language of that bill called for voters in Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to vote on implementing local sales taxes, as opposed to their elected bodies.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said at the time he was "done negotiating," but talks have instead continued between Republican leaders and with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Evers, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley have long favored letting the local elected bodies vote on a Milwaukee sales tax. 

Under the bill, Milwaukee would be allowed to pursue a 2% city sales tax. Milwaukee is currently the only U.S. city of its size that is not allowed to have its own sales tax.

Wisconsin allows counties to have a sales tax of up to 0.5%. The shared revenue bill would let Milwaukee County bump its sales tax to 0.875%

For both the city and county, any new sales tax revenue could only be used to pay off existing pension obligations and to maintain police and fire services.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu has said he supports allowing Milwaukee's local elected bodies to vote on the new sales taxes, but it is unclear whether there are enough votes in the state Senate to pass a shared revenue bill with that amendment. 

LeMahieu issued a statement Wednesday night saying he'd made his "last, best offer," and gave Evers until the end of the day to either agree to the current provisions or the Senate would strip out the Milwaukee sales tax language.

Vos said earlier on Wednesday he was giving Evers until the end of the week. 

A spokesperson for LeMahieu declined to comment Thursday morning.

At a Republican press conference Thursday at the Capitol, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) indicated an agreement could be imminent.

"It seems things may be coming together, it appears," Stroebel said. "We'll see."

Milwaukee officials remain frustrated with a series of policy requirements that would be dictated to them in the Republican bill. 

The legislation also would force the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission to dedicate seats to members selected by the fire and police unions, and would ban the commission from setting police department police. The bill also includes the following conditions for the city and county:

  • Milwaukee Public Schools must bring back school resource officers
  • Tax revenue cannot go toward the Milwaukee streetcar
  • Race cannot be a consideration when issuing government contracts
  • A mandatory audit of Milwaukee's Office of Violence Prevention

However, the biggest contention has been whether elected bodies could vote on the Milwaukee sales taxes. Without that money, city and county leaders have warned they'd be left to make drastic cuts to all departments in the coming years.

Evers had previously said he would veto a version of the bill that left the sales tax votes to public referenda. The concern is voters in the city and county would reject a new sales tax, especially if that revenue was limited to only paying off pension debt and covering public safety services.

Evers' budget proposal included larger immediate increases in shared revenue for all local governments because the governor's plan did not set nearly as many conditions for local governments to meet. 

The GOP bill sets aside $300 million of the increase in an "innovation fund" that rewards cities and counties for finding ways to merge services. 

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