Wisconsin Assembly passes shared revenue bill as Vos says Republicans are 'done negotiating'

The Wisconsin Assembly passed an updated version of a Republican bill that boosts an increase in state funding for local governments but retains provisions opposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Associated Press

May 17, 2023

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Robin Vos stands behind a wooden podium affixed with multiple microphones with trailing cords, with dozens of people standing behind him on a plaza outside an entrance to the a building with marble masonry and art deco bronze light fixtures.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, center, joined by fellow Republicans, announces an updated version of a bill to boost aid to local governments outside of the Wisconsin State Capitol on May 17, 2023, in Madison. (Credit: AP Photo /Scott Bauer)

AP News

By Scott Bauer, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said May 17 that Republicans were “done negotiating” on a bill that would increase state aid to local governments, unveiling a new proposal that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the GOP-controlled Senate have yet to agree to.

The Assembly passed the latest version hours after Evers expressed optimism that a bipartisan agreement could be reached. But he was not included in the discussion that led to the latest proposal, which boosts the increase in aid for local governments from at least 10% to 15% but retains provisions that Milwaukee and Evers had objected to.

“We are done negotiating,” Vos said. “We have negotiated in good faith literally for months.”

The Assembly passed it 56-36, with all Republicans in support except for three who joined all Democrats in opposing it. The measure now goes to the Senate, where its future is uncertain. Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Vos did not say if the Senate agreed to the latest version of the bill.

“Is this bill perfect? Hell no it’s not perfect,” said Republican Rep. Tony Kurtz, the measure’s sponsor. But he emphasized that Milwaukee officials, Democratic lawmakers, Evers and those representing cities, counties, towns and villages have all been involved with crafting the proposal.

Wisconsin’s local governments have clamored for years for more state aid to help cover basic services, including police and fire protection, after decades of frozen funding and cuts.

Under the bill, $1.5 billion in aid to municipalities — known as shared revenue — would be paid for by tapping 20% of the state’s 5-cent sales tax, an idea Evers has supported. Aid would then grow along with sales tax revenue.

The bill would increase funding to counties, cities, towns and villages by $261 million — at least a 15% increase for everyone — over the next two years, but that could only be spent on police and fire protection, emergency medical services, emergency response communications, public works and transportation. The city and county of Milwaukee would see a 10% increase, but could ask voters for more.

Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback said the governor had not signed off on any changes and he looked forward to continuing negotiations, which he previously said he expected to take weeks more. Evers promised to veto the original bill.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, during Assembly debate, said the bill was “not ready for prime time.”

“We need to go back to the negotiating table and get it right,” Neubauer said. “We can and must do better.”

Under the bill, Milwaukee could levy a 2% sales tax and Milwaukee County could add 0.375% sales tax to its current 0.5% sales tax. One of the biggest sticking points has been whether Milwaukee taxpayers would have to approve that tax increase before it could be enacted. Milwaukee city and county officials don’t want to have to take it to a vote.

Under the Republican amendment, that requirement for taxpayer approval would remain.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson warned lawmakers last week that the city faces bankruptcy by 2025 without help. He, along with groups representing municipalities, police and firefighters, as well as numerous mayors and other local officials, all testified in support of reaching a deal that increases funding.

Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold, faces an underfunded pension system. Milwaukee has increasingly become reliant on federal pandemic aid to fund its essential services, which city leaders have said cost $150 million more per year to maintain.

Evers, and many of the local officials who testified last week, had complained that the proposal came with too many strings attached. Those include cutting aid to communities that reduce the number of police officers and firefighters and banning public health officials from ordering businesses closed for more than two weeks.

The Assembly amendment would allow health officials to close businesses for up to 30 days, with the local governing body able to extend that once for another 30 days.

The amendment also still bans local advisory referenda questions on everything except those for certain projects that would be funded with property tax money. The bill would not allow questions on hot-button issues like whether voters support abortion rights or legalizing marijuana.

It would also mandate that local governments approve projects under the state’s land stewardship program that are north of U.S. Highway 8, which runs across roughly the northernmost quarter of the state. Republicans have long raised concerns about such projects that protect the land from future development.

The shared revenue program to fund local governments, created in 1911, has remained nearly unchanged for almost 30 years, despite overall growth in tax revenues. Shared revenue for counties and municipalities was cut in 2004, 2010 and 2012 and since then has been relatively flat.

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