Assembly Republicans on Wednesday passed an updated local aid bill that boosts state funding to communities but keeps many local restrictions opposed by Democrats, after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said his caucus was “done negotiating” on the measure that has yet to receive backing from Senate Republicans or Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Republicans unveiled the amended bill, which now boosts state funding by at least 15% for all cities and counties besides Milwaukee, hours before the Assembly was to vote on the measure Wednesday. Vos, R-Rochester, said the updates are the result of “good faith negotiations” with state lawmakers, local stakeholders and Evers, who expressed optimism earlier in the day that both sides could find bipartisan compromise to provide much-needed funding to local governments.
“Everybody has to take their own position, but we are done negotiating,” Vos told reporters outside the Capitol. “What we have before us is the deal that we are going to send to our colleagues in the state Senate and hopefully Gov. Evers agrees that this historic investment is worth signing.”
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The bill passed 56-36, with three Republicans — Reps. Scott Allen, of Waukesha, Janel Brandtjen, of Menomonee Falls, and Chuck Wichgers, of Muskego — joining Democrats in opposing the measure.
Earlier in the day, Evers said he was optimistic that conversations with Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, would lead to bipartisan compromise. He also indicated negotiations could last for weeks.
“Nothing has changed since the governor’s statement this morning,” Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback said Wednesday afternoon. “The governor hasn’t signed off on any amendment, but he looks forward to continuing negotiations with Republican leaders in the weeks ahead.”
The Democratic governor earlier this month promised to veto the bill as written, arguing the proposal didn’t spend enough and imposed unnecessary restrictions on counties and cities.
LeMahieu’s spokesperson, Michael Pyritz, said Tuesday discussions on the bill were ongoing.
Assembly Bill 245 would would divert a penny of every nickel collected under the state’s 5-cent sales tax to counties, towns, villages and cities to pay for services such as law enforcement, fire protection, responding to emergencies, public works and transportation.
While the original bill would have increased local aid by $227 million, the updated version boosts the increase to $260 million, according to an analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Republicans say the increase means cities and counties will see a minimum 15% increase in state funding, as opposed to the 10% increase in the original bill.
Milwaukee, however, will be kept at a 10% increase. Vos said that is because the bill maintains provisions allowing Milwaukee County to increase its 0.5% sales tax by 0.375 percentage points and allow Milwaukee to impose a 2% sales tax to fund pension debt.
In a public hearing earlier this month, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley largely praised the bill as a major step forward to help stave off impending cuts to city and county staffing, including for police and fire services. However, they also raised concern over language in the bill requiring those tax increases to be approved by voters, as opposed to a decision made by local elected officials.
LeMahieu told WTMJ Tuesday he doesn’t think a referendum vote “is the best way to accomplish this, because the fear is that it’s going to fail.” LeMahieu’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle largely support increased state funding for local governments, Democrats and some local officials have derided the GOP-authored bill for including several local restrictions, despite changes offered by Republicans.
“Our work is not complete,” Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said. “It is not ready for prime time.”
“After an hours long closed door Republican caucus, Speaker Robin Vos announced at a press conference that he was done negotiating and would bring to a vote a half baked plan rife with politically motivated policy measures that have nothing to do with ensuring our local communities have the resources they need,” Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, said in a statement.
Under the bill, local health officials would be barred from closing a business for more than 30 days to help control an outbreak or epidemic. Local elected officials could vote to extend the closure for an additional 30 days.
Another component in the bill would provide local governments in the northern portion of the state the ability to essentially kill any proposed land acquisitions by passing a resolution opposing the measure. State Republicans have pushed back against several proposed land conservation projects, particularly in northern Wisconsin, over concerns they take too much private land off the tax rolls.
While the original bill prohibited local cities and counties from placing any advisory referendums on local ballots, the amended version would allow ballot items only if they propose using property taxes to fund projects.
Critics of the bill called for removing a section of the original proposal mandating law enforcement officers in Milwaukee schools. The amended version maintains that requirement but clarifies those officers must complete a 40-hour training course.
The measure also would allow for $300 million in spending on a three-year pilot program to encourage local governments to share more services.
Created in 1911 alongside the state income tax, Wisconsin’s shared revenue program initially provided local municipalities 70% of state income tax collections, while counties and the state received the remaining 20% and 10%, respectively, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
But the percentage of income tax revenue allocated to local entities has plummeted over the years and has remained essentially unchanged for nearly three decades despite overall growth in tax revenues, according to a February report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.
State Journal reporter Alexander Shur contributed to this report.
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