Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson argued the Common Council should vote on the proposed 2 percent sales tax bump in the GOP shared revenue bill rather than sending the question to voters in a referendum.
Johnson, who has largely praised the measure for providing his city more funds and moving things in the right direction, wouldn’t say if he’s going to push the guv to sign the bill. But he said his “goal is to get a bill that the governor will sign.”
He argued at Thursday’s Assembly Local Government Committee public hearing that Milwaukeeans elected their local government leaders to dig into these issues so they don’t have to. And residents entrust that responsibility to those elected officials because they don’t have the time to weigh in on every major issue, he said.
“Common Council members are close to the people they represent, and they can make timely decisions that move Milwaukee forward,” he said.
He also said a referendum would be a complex question that would be difficult to explain to voters, and local government officials are better equipped to hash out the details.
“My belief is I don’t want to be in a position where we leave all of this up to chance, and it all unravels or it all falls apart,” he said.
Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, questioned why Johnson wants to see local government vote on the issue.
“I would think that citizens in Milwaukee’s city and county would like a say,” he said. “Because isn’t that historically where the problem arose, was from Common Council or County Board decisions?”
Johnson argued the problem arose under different leadership and different Common Council members, adding “it’s a new day.”
“My strong belief is that if we’re going to resolve this situation, then the folks who are put in these elected positions, elected by constituents to dig in and tackle these very important matters, are the ones who should make the votes on this very important issue for local governments,” he said.
The 2 percent bump would bring about $180 million in extra revenue, Johnson said. The funds would help the city pay off its mounting pension obligations.
A provision in AB 245 would require the city of Milwaukee to comply with police and fire maintenance-of-effort requirements even if voters don’t approve the 2 percent sales tax increase. Johnson said passing the bill and failing to pass the referendum would be devastating to public safety.
Municipalities with populations of 20,000 or more would have to show they are maintaining a level of law enforcement equivalent to what they had provided in the previous year. Failing to do so would result in a 15 percent reduction in their state aid.
“It would mean hundreds of police officers who would be let go, hundreds of firefighters no longer on the job, and scores of general city employees not doing their jobs,” Johnson said.
The city would still have to comply with the maintenance of effort requirement.
He also pointed out that many public safety referendums have failed as of late, singling out a $3.6 million “Anti-Crime Plan” in neighboring Washington County in 2022 voters shot down 28,945 to 37,018.
Johnson also voiced concerns about provisions that would remove Fire and Police Commission oversight over the departments and give it to the city’s fire and police chiefs. Fire and police department policy changes would also go through the Common Council instead of the FPC, under the bill.
“In Milwaukee … we have had civilian oversight of the Fire and Police Commission going back to the late 1800s,” he said. “And that’s to separate politics from policing and fire services.”
He also bemoaned the bill for provisions on “transportation options in the city of Milwaukee.”
The bill would bar local property tax revenues from paying for Milwaukee’s street car system. Money for the $128.1 million initial project construction was split roughly half between federal and local funding.
Most local government leaders during the hearing praised lawmakers for moving to address revenue sharing after it has languished for years. But they also argued it doesn’t go far enough.
Racine Mayor Cory Mason, who served as a Dem in the Assembly for a decade, said he opposes the bill because it just doesn’t provide enough funding. He said he appreciates the bill’s intention to give at least a little bit of extra money to everybody around the state, but he’d rather see a measure with a more sustainable funding formula than what’s in the bill.
“If we’re only going to come up to the plate every 20 years to deal with this, we’ve really got to get it right,” he said.
Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, who also served in the Assembly for a decade, expressed similar concerns, but much of his testimony focused on the $300 million Innovation Fund. That provision rewards local governments that save money by consolidating services.
Antaramian said consolidation works sometimes, but it also usually results in winners and losers, something lawmakers have said the current shared revenue formula already does.
“It is not a panacea that’s gonna work,” he said, adding many communities that have consolidated services did so to provide services that actually worked, not to save money.
Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride, who testified for informational purposes only, not in favor or opposition of the measure, said his city has already started consolidating. He moved a fire truck to a neighboring disused Milwaukee firehouse. That likely didn’t save any money, but it did give Milwaukee a chance to reopen fire services while decreasing Wauwatosa’s fire response times, he said.
He also noted governments that have already consolidated services wouldn’t be eligible for the grants.
“If you’re going to have an innovation fund, please let those who have already innovated benefit,” he said.
Rep. Sue Conley also condemned the plan’s maintenance-of-effort requirement for police and fire departments.
The provision would allow municipalities to cite the number of citations for moving violations or arrests for breaking local ordinances in the previous year to meet requirements for additional state aid. That’s despite state law barring local governments from requiring quotas for police.
Conley, D-Janesville, said “in my community, we take pride in lowering those things, not maintaining those numbers.”
“We want to reduce crime in our community,” she added. “This feels a little bit like a quota; like you’re setting a quota around these things.”
Bill author Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, responded he’d be happy to make any needed changes to address concerns, but setting quotas “is not the intended goal whatsoever.”