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Mayor Johnson urges lawmakers to let Common Council decide on sales tax increase rather than Milwaukee voters

"I've got grave concerns about a referendum being able to pass in Milwaukee,” he said.
Mayor Cavalier Johnson.png
Posted at 4:29 PM, May 04, 2023

MADISON, Wis. — Who should determine whether Milwaukee implements a 2-cent sales tax?

State Republican lawmakers introduced a bill this week that would let Milwaukee voters decide. Mayor Cavalier Johnson urged them Thursday to leave the decision up to the city’s Common Council.

"I don't want Milwaukee to be in a position where we leave all this up to chance,” he said.

Mayor Johnson called on lawmakers to make a major pivot because he thinks it would be tough to convince Milwaukee residents to vote in favor of a sales tax increase.

"I've got grave concerns about a referendum being able to pass in Milwaukee,” he said.

GOP lawmakers released a bill this week that would increase shared revenue for the first time in two decades. Every municipality in Wisconsin would see at least a 10 percent increase in state funding.

The plan also provides an avenue to prevent the city of Milwaukee from potentially going bankrupt.

It would allow the city to hold a referendum, putting a sales tax increase on the ballot to cover looming pension payment hikes.

Instead of a ballot referendum, Mayor Johnson urged lawmakers to let the city’s Common Council decide to make it a sure thing.

"Just think about what those cuts would look like,” he said. “It would mean there would be hundreds of police officers who would be let go, who wouldn't be patrolling the streets of Milwaukee."

“I think to start, the citizenship should be part of that process,” said Rep. Scott Johnson, a Republican from Rock County.

Several Republican representatives suggested they may not want to budge on that request.

"It would be very valuable to the city if those residents bought into that and were supportive of it, and I think it's appropriate to try to make that case,” Rep. Johnson said.

Mayor Johnson also shared that he dislikes all of the strings attached to the extra money. The GOP bill would dictate how the funds would be spent in addition to required cuts to streetcar funding and who sets fire and police department policies.

But on Thursday, Mayor Johnson put a major focus on who would decide whether a majority of the funds are even made available.

“Mayor, what would you say to the Milwaukee voters who may be frustrated that you would like this decision to be taken out of their hands?” TMJ4 reporter Ben Jordan asked.

“I think that this is a decision that is very, very complex,” he replied. “It's a very complex thing that includes pensions, that includes public safety, that includes a tax increase, that's got a lot of numbers and discount rates and all these things. I think it's important that we trust the people we've elected to office to dig into these issues.”

The proposal would also allow Milwaukee County to hold a referendum on a .375 cent sales tax increase. Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley told lawmakers he’d prefer the county board of supervisors makes that call as well.

This shared revenue bill is far from a done deal. Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday he will not support the current plan. Gov. Evers says it doesn’t send enough resources to communities struggling to pay for crucial services.

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