Proponents support Milwaukee County sales tax increase at legislative hearing

It’s a consolation prize for now but may contribute to the desired outcome in the long run as business and political supporters of increasing Milwaukee County’s sales tax presented their case Thursday before a Wisconsin Assembly committee at the State Capitol.

A coalition called Move Forward MKE initially hoped the Wisconsin Legislature would approve scheduling a referendum on a sales tax increase for the April 7 election. However, the Wisconsin Assembly took no action on a bill to enable the referendum and Thursday’s committee hearing followed the Assembly ending its 2020 floor session. That leaves proponents to continue their efforts to set the stage for a possible future approval by the state Legislature. And the hearing before the Assembly Ways and Means Committee represents an official starting point. “It’s educational and informational more than it is moving a particular bill at this point,” said Steve Baas, chief lobbyist for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. Ultimately, Milwaukee County voters would have to support a tax increase in a referendum before it could be implemented. But the Wisconsin Legislature would have to approve holding a referendum probably no sooner than 2021.

The Milwaukee County sales tax is now 5.6% for purchases in the county. The bulk of that — 5% — goes to the state with 0.5% for the county and 0.1% to the Miller Park District. The stadium district tax will sunset this spring. From the outset, the proposed legislation faced opposition from Republican Senate Leader Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), who called it dead on arrival in the Wisconsin Senate. However, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester) was open to at least discussing the idea, which is what the committee entertained on Thursday. RECOMMENDED

Among those scheduled to speak in support of the bill Thursday were MMAC president Tim Sheehy and Bader Rutter chairman Greg Nickerson. Speakers also included Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), who co-authored the bill.

An increase of one percentage point in the Milwaukee County sales tax would provide property tax relief while delivering adequate funding for several fiscal needs because property taxes can’t keep pace with fiscal challenges, supporters say. Those needs include operations and capital projects for Milwaukee County and its municipalities. Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview), who chairs the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, said Thursday he believes it is “extremely important to have this conversation” on state policies for funding municipalities and counties. Sheehy was scheduled to say in his prepared remarks that Milwaukee raises revenue primarily through its local property tax to support “the services, infrastructure, and unique quality of life assets that benefit a substantial portion of the region’s economy.”

“We believe an incremental increase in the Milwaukee County sales tax will better reflect the value the region’s economy places on these services and provide for a more stable and diversified revenue stream,” Sheehy said. Nickerson, who represented the Greater Milwaukee Committee, said the Milwaukee-area business community supports solutions to adequately fund critical services and reduce the property tax burden.

“We need to position Milwaukee for success, and continued growth,” Nickerson said in his prepared remarks. “An increased sales tax will do just that, allowing local leaders to invest in our communities.”


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