Fight over local wheel taxes isn't over

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WHAT ONE senator calls local governments across Wisconsin - ranging from the Village of Tigerton (population 716) to Milwaukee County (population 957,735) - "rushing" to levy wheel taxes could still set off fireworks in the Legislature.

The push led by two GOP lawmakers - Rep. Michael Schraa, of Oshkosh, and Sen. Steve Nass, of Whitewater - to require referendums that could stop current and future wheel taxes recently got a public hearing, proving their bills aren't dead yet.

THEY would prohibit any local government from levying a wheel tax without advance permission from voters who pass a referendum. Referendums could only be held on regularly scheduled elections.

The more than 25 local governments who already charge a wheel tax, or who have approved one and will soon start collecting it, would have 18 months to schedule referendums to get voters' approval.

State officials say local wheel taxes brought in $20.6 million last year - a one-year increase of 73%.

For example, $20 wheel taxes in 2016 brought in $6.75 million for the City of Milwaukee; Appleton, $1.35 million; Janesville, $1.08 million; Beloit, $583,012; Iowa County, $415,496, and Town of Arena in Dane County, 417,377. 

"If you want to take more money from the people, ask them whether they want to pay more or not," Nass told the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

LOCAL governments are "rushing" to adopt wheel taxes, Nass said. 

Twelve local governments have adopted wheel taxes since 2016, including Dane County's decision to start collecting a $28 per-vehicle tax on Oct. 1.

"It's hard to argue that the people - the taxpayers - should not be consulted with this kind of fee increase," added Schraa.

Local government officials say they need the option of wheel taxes to pay for soaring transportation-related costs, so the Legislature should not require referendums.

"Reject this unnecessary interference into policy decisions by local elected officials," Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities told the Assembly committee.

ONLY about 1.3% of the 1,900 local governments that could adopt a wheel tax have done so, Witynski said.

"Trust that locally elected officials will make the best decisions they can to adequately fund street maintenance and repair," he added.

Asked about Dane County's plan to raise $11.6 million a year by charging a $28 wheel tax, County Executive Joe Parisi called it a "modest" surcharge and "less than a tank of gas."

"As the fastest growing county in Wisconsin, Dane County is seeing greater demands placed on roads than a few years ago" and needs a "dedicated source of revenue," Parisi said, adding:

"The cost to run the highway department - mowing, plowing, and resurfacing our roads - is 20% more today than it was just a few years ago."

BUT NASS told the Assembly committee of two examples where, he said, local officials abused current law:

• Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele ignored an April advisory referendum in which 72% of voters told county officials not to raise the $30 wheel tax adopted last year.

Instead, Abele proposed raising an additional $14.7 million for this year's budget by doubling the county's wheel tax to $60 - an increase that Milwaukee County supervisors killed.

Abele was "circling back to try to get that [$60 tax] in place - ignoring the will of the people," Nass said.

Responding to supervisors' refusal to go to $60, Abele warned that it means "deep cuts to transit, public safety, parks and social services."

• After Janesville voters voted down a $1.2 million transportation-funding referendum, Nass said city officials doubled the wheel tax, raising it from $10 to $20.

EVEN if voters defeat officials who adopt a wheel tax, it stays in place - and likely keeps going up, Nass said.

But Witynski said the Legislature should look at "state and local taxation in a broad, holistic way" and not act on "one narrow, minor component of the system."

Gov. Scott Walker and legislators cannot agree on long-term funding for state and local roads. A $75 surcharge on hybrid vehicles and a $100 surcharge on electric vehicles was approved, however.

That means a City of Milwaukee resident who owns an electric car will pay $225 to register it this year: the $75 state fee, a $100 surcharge, a $20 city wheel tax and a $30 county wheel tax.   

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at  

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