Wisconsin Assembly to vote on local aid package in face of veto threat

By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly plans to vote Wednesday on a Republican-authored plan to increase state aid to local governments, despite not having reached agreement with the GOP-controlled Senate and in the face of a veto threat from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The vote was scheduled even as those involved in the plan are still negotiating privately to try and reach agreement. Changes to the bill are expected to be unveiled publicly for the first time shortly before the vote, which is expected Wednesday afternoon.

There is a lot at stake for cash-strapped local governments that have long lobbied the Legislature to increase stagnant state aid to help pay for pension costs, police, fire and emergency services and a host of other needs.

The problem is particularly acute in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold, which faces an underfunded pension system. Milwaukee has increasingly become reliant on federal pandemic aid to fund its essential services, which city leaders have said cost $150 million more per year to maintain.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson warned lawmakers last week that the city faces insolvency by 2025 without help. He, along with groups representing municipalities, police and firefighters, as well as numerous mayors and other local officials, all testified in support of reaching a deal that increases funding.

Under the bill, Milwaukee could levy a 2% sales tax and Milwaukee County could add 0.375% sales tax to its current 0.5% sales tax. Both would need voter approval, a requirement that Milwaukee officials have opposed.

At its core, the bill as introduced would increase funding to counties, cities, towns and villages by $227 million, or 10%, over the next two years, but could only be spent on police and fire protection, emergency medical services, emergency response communications, public works and transportation.

The $1.5 billion in aid to municipalities — known as shared revenue — would be paid for by tapping 20% of the state’s 5-cent sales tax, an idea Evers has supported.

But Evers, and many of the local officials who testified last week, said the current proposal comes with too many strings attached. Those include banning public health officials from ordering businesses closed for more than two weeks, cutting aid to communities that reduce the number of police officers and firefighters and prohibiting local advisory referenda questions.

It would also mandate that local governments approve projects under the state’s land stewardship program that are north of U.S. Highway 8, which runs across roughly the northernmost quarter of the state. Republicans have long raised concerns about such projects that protect the land from future development.

Evers has also said, in light of the state’s $7 billion budget surplu s, that more money should go to local governments in aid.

The shared revenue program to fund local governments, created in 1911, has remained nearly unchanged for almost 30 years, despite overall growth in tax revenues. Shared revenue for counties and municipalities was cut in 2004, 2010 and 2012 and since then has been relatively flat.