Boots & Sabers

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1818, 26 May 23

A bad bill gets worse

Here is my full column that ran earlier in the week in the Washington County Daily News.

A couple of weeks ago this column criticized the Shared Revenue bill advancing through the state Assembly. Since then, the bill has gotten worse and the momentum seems to be on the side of disaster. One can only hope that it falls apart under its own craptaculance.


Readers of this column will recall that Assembly Bill 245 was negotiated in private for several months by the Assembly Republican leadership, Milwaukee Democratic leadership, and some other stakeholders — not including the governor’s office. The thrust of the bill is that the state will dramatically increase Shared Revenue for local governments while imposing some restrictions on them. For the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, the state would further allow them to impose a massive sales tax increase if the voters approve and in exchange for further restrictions.


Beyond that, the bill would end the personal property tax in which personal property is subject to property taxes. The personal property tax is a particular burden for businesses that have a substantial amount of equipment. The bill would also limit the power of local health officials to close businesses, grant the legislative Joint Finance Committee and local governments some control over the State Stewardship program, prohibit most advisory referenda for local governments, and a host of other things. As the bill is crafted, Gov. Tony Evers cannot use his line-item veto to carve it up. The governor must either sign the bill or veto the entire thing. After the bill was announced a few weeks ago, feverish negotiations began with Governor Evers’ office to try to incorporate any changes the governor might want to induce him to sign the bill. The root of the contention is fairly simple. The Republicans and the governor seem to agree that a boost in Shared Revenue is a good thing. The notion that Republicans should work for smaller government seems to have been eschewed in favor of filling up the trough. The governor disagrees with some of the smaller provisions in the bill that Republicans favor, but they are somewhat lost in the bigger issues.


The primary bone of contention has to do with the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. The problem that Republicans are trying to fix is that both local governments are on a trajectory to go bankrupt due to their lavish pension obligations grated to government employees for decades. The Republicans want Milwaukee City and County to ask the voters if they will increase their local sales taxes to meet those pension obligations. If the voters agree, then the money must be used to retire the pension debt and other requirements will be imposed like requiring that new employees join the solvent state retirement system, prohibiting spending more money on the city trolley and maintaining law enforcement.


Governor Evers wants all of the money to bail out the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, but he does not want any of the restrictions. Furthermore, the governor does not want to have to ask the voters about raising taxes. He wants to allow Milwaukee City and County to just raise the taxes without asking for fear that the voters might say, “no.”


As a concession to the governor, the bill that finally passed the Assembly kept most of the deal for Milwaukee intact but spends more and watered down some of the restrictions. The Assembly Republicans negotiated and drafted the new version in private and rushed it to a vote without anyone having time to even read it. There is absolutely no reason to rush the bill through and the “we have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it” mentality is exactly the kind of bad governance that gives politicians their slimy reputations.


Through all of this, nobody apparently thought to ask the Senate Republicans what they want in a bill. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu has expressed concerns for the bill and seems to share Governor Evers’ worry about asking the voters in Milwaukee before raising their taxes. It seems unlikely that the Senate will pass an identical bill to the Assembly thus forcing a reconciliation before it ever reaches the governor’s desk.


What are we doing here? Republicans are clamoring for a massive spending increase and trying to bail out the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County for decades of terrible policies? The ornamental conservative policies being hung on the bill are a glittery distraction from the abysmal spending and opening the floodgates for local tax increases.


If the bill ever reached Evers’ desk, let us hope that he will veto it to put an end to the Republicans’ momentary lunacy.


1818, 26 May 2023


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