The new year began with an entertaining spat between the conservative Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann and the liberal Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson. While amusing, the kerfuffle overstates the dissimilarities.
On New Year’s Day, Schoemann posted on X a snarky comment welcoming residents of Milwaukee County to Washington County to do their shopping and dining. The comment was a swipe at the fact that Milwaukee County increased the county sales tax by 0.9% on January 1. The city of Milwaukee increased the sales tax by 2%. In one day, people making purchases in the city of Milwaukee are paying 7.9% in sales taxes compared to 5.5% in Washington County.
Johnson shot back saying, “If folks are looking at a high-quality dinner or a theater or a fine dining experience, they can come here (Milwaukee), or go to Cracker Barrel there (Washington County).” Zing!
Liberal Milwaukee has become a high-tax island, and they appear to not have any intention of slowing down. In the wake of the 44% increase in the sales tax, Milwaukee city leaders are proposing a 15% pay increase for themselves. Included in the proposal is an automatic 3% increase for themselves every year in perpetuity.
Not to be left behind, the Milwaukee Public Schools voted to ask the voters for an additional $252 million in a referendum. MPS already spends an incredible $19,000 per student and enrollment is declining. The state Legislature just gave MPS tens of millions of additional dollars in a deal struck last year. A deal, incidentally, in which MPS agreed to put school resource officers back in the schools and the school district has already broken that agreement without any consequence.
Lest Washington County residents look with too much aspersion toward their neighbors to the southeast, some self-reflection is in order. Washington County also has a 0.5% county sales tax on top of the state sales tax. The county sales tax was sold to the voters in 1998 as a temporary emergency imperative for several critical capital expense needs related to public safety. The county sales tax has been extended every time – most recently in 2022 and 2017 with the vocal support of Schoemann.
The West Bend School District is also following the path charted by their big brother to the southeast. The West Bend district is also seeing a rapid decline in enrollment and is receiving a budget boost from the same state funding that Milwaukee is getting. Despite this, the West Bend School Board has hired consultants and is moving down the process to ask the voters for more money in a referendum later this year. They may yet change course, but history teaches us otherwise.
What is the lesson to be learned? While Washington County and Milwaukee County are viewed as polar political opposites as highlighted by the rhetorical fusillade between Schoemann and Johnson, they are different more in degree than in substance. Yes, Milwaukee County is a tax hell, but Washington County is only slightly less fiery.
The other lesson is that when it comes to government spending, the politicians in charge will never, ever admit that they have enough to spend — never mind too much to spend. Politicians of all stripes derive their power from their ability to spend our money. The more they spend, the more power they have. It does not matter what they spend it on. That is not what it is about. It is about political power derived from wielding the public purse.
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