GOP Leaders Reject Evers’ Plan To Allow Local Sales Tax Increases

Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to allow local governments to increase sales taxes with voter approval is “dead on arrival,” according to state GOP leaders. 

The leaders foreshadowed a dim fate for the plan at a virtual forum Wednesday, where the state Senate’s top Democrat also said voters who reject raising sales taxes are “not smart,” a remark she later called a failed attempt at sarcasm and a poor choice of words.

Under the governor’s sales tax plan, which was included in his 2021-23 state budget proposal, counties and municipalities with populations over 30,000 would be able to increase sales tax by 0.5 percent, as long as the increase was approved by voters through a ballot referendum. 

“There is no chance this is going to happen,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.  “I think the problem we are looking at, especially in Milwaukee, is systematic problems where they have made bad decisions over decades they now do not have the courage to solve. Now they want to go to taxpayers for an easy, quick fix. That is just not going to happen.”

The Wisconsin Counties Association supports the governor’s plan, saying it would provide much-needed help funding state-mandated local government programs. Other groups, including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, have also come out in support of the proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, indicated Senate Republicans may be more open to the plan if the sales tax increases were directed toward property tax relief. But he said it’s “very doubtful” counties would choose to use the money that way.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders urged their GOP counterparts to avoid such a quick “no” on the measure.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said many counties don’t have enough money to provide things beyond basic services.

“I hope we would get past the immediate ‘no,'” Hintz said. 

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, said some people in her district don’t have ambulance services because of insufficient revenue. 

“If you call 911, you cross your fingers,” she said.

Democratic Leader’s Comments On Voters Draw Sharp Criticism

Later on in the event, Bewley took heat for saying voters who oppose referendums to pay for services are “not smart.”

After speaking about sparse emergency services in part of her district, Vos asked Bewley if the local government there had attempted a referendum to secure more funding. 

“They haven’t had time yet, but they’re thinking of it,” Bewley said. “And the voters will turn it down, and then they’re going to be in the same position that they are right now.”

“If the voters turn it down, doesn’t that mean they don’t support what you’re advocating for?” Vos asked.

“Perhaps that means that they’re not smart,” Bewley said. 

Bewley later clarified her remarks in a prepared statement, saying they were meant as a sarcastic retort to a previous statement by Vos, who lauded Walworth County for approving a referendum that lowered property taxes.

“After Rep. Robin Vos’ description of his voters being “smart enough” to vote a certain way, I responded sarcastically,” Bewley said in the statement. “What I should have said, is that the voters of Walworth County are not smarter than the voters in my district, and that there’s no good way to deal with a system that forces people to go to referendum in order to pay for essential services, such as having an ambulance come when you call for help.”

Republicans were quick to criticize the remark.

“I disagree with people a lot, but I don’t think people who disagree with me are dumb,” Vos said. 

Others, including the Republican Party of Wisconsin, state Sen. Julian Bradley, R-Franklin, and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch took to Twitter to criticize the comment.

This is shocking honesty from the Left. Liberals think that the government knows best, not you,” Kleefisch said. “Higher taxes means tighter budgets for working families. Who can afford that after the year we have all had?”

During the event, legislative leaders also weighed in on possible areas of compromise in the state budget, which they said will likely include an increase in state spending on expanding broadband internet. 

“We are definitely going to have an investment in broadband,” Vos said. 

Other areas of potential agreement included funding local road projects, work on I-90/94 in southeastern Wisconsin and more funding for policy body cameras.

However, Vos also noted Republicans plan to start the two-year budget “from scratch,” throwing out many of Evers’ proposals. 

“We’re going to throw out his entire budget, like we’ve done before,” he said. “We’ll start from scratch.”

GOP lawmakers did the same during the last state budget process. The budget is scheduled to be complete by July 1, but could go past that deadline.