How not to win friends and influence voters

The Wisconsin State Journal:

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley said voters who reject local tax increases are “not smart” during a Wednesday webinar of legislative leaders — comments the Democrat later attempted to walk back as a “failed attempt at sarcasm and poor choice of words.”

During a prerecorded Wisconsin Counties Association online panel that aired Wednesday, leaders in the state Assembly and Senate discussed a proposal in Gov. Tony Evers’ budget that would allow counties and some municipalities to raise their sales tax to fund operational needs, a proposal Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, rejected.

“There is no chance this is going to happen,” Vos said. “Dead on arrival.”

Bewley, D-Mason, spoke in favor of the half-cent tax increase but acknowledged that, if put before voters, such a measure could likely fail. When asked by Vos if that would imply voters don’t support the tax increase, Bewley replied, “perhaps it means that they’re not smart.”

Vos asked Bewley if she wanted to rethink her statement, adding, “I disagree with people a lot, but I don’t think people who disagree with me are dumb. You just basically said all constituents are dumb who disagree with you.”

Bewley didn’t immediately retract her comment but issued a statement following the video’s airing in which she said the statement was an attempted sarcastic reply to Vos’ comment that voters were smart enough to vote a certain way.

“I hope that we can focus on the serious issues that were discussed during the taping of this roundtable, and not on my failed attempt at sarcasm, and poor choice of words,” Bewley said in a statement. “Lives and livelihoods are at stake and we have to do better than play political ‘gotcha’ games.”

James Wigderson reported further:

The senator was advocating for a provision in the governor’s budget proposal which would allow counties to raise the sales tax an additional .5% if approved by the voters. She pointed out the need for higher taxes by mentioning four townships in her area that are unable to provide ambulance services.

“Have they gone to referendum already and asked the voters to increase their own revenues?” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) asked.

“They haven’t had time yet but they’re thinking of it, yes,” Bewley responded.

“They have option now, right?” Vos asked.

“Yes they do,” Bewley responded. “And the voters will turn it down and they are going to be in the same position that they’re in right now.”

“So if the voters turn it down, doesn’t that mean that they don’t support what you’re advocating for?” Vos asked.

“No. Perhaps it means they’re not smart,” Bewley said. “You know. Sometimes we have to do things that allow them the ability – we, as the state have to do things that are part of the state’s responsibility that should not always be linked to one group. If they can’t provide it, don’t we have some collective responsibility to help those communities that depend on volunteer emergency services?”

“Janet, do you want to re-think that?” Vos asked. “I disagree with people a lot but I don’t think that people who disagree with me are dumb. You just basically said your constituents are dumb who disagree with you.”

“Well, the reference to Walworth County didn’t go over to well with me, so…” Bewley responded, referring to an early comment by Vos about Walworth County using their existing sales tax authority to lower property taxes.

One way to avoid “political ‘gotcha’ games” is to not make statements that make you “gotcha” bait in the first place.

Evers’ proposal is an example of what proponents would call “local control.” Of course, state politicians use those words when localities would provide, they think, the outcome they desire, which is why in this case most Republicans would be opposed to this form of “local control,” since it leads to higher taxes, for which Wisconsin is legendary.

Jordan Morales explores that point:

As a Milwaukeean who supports Governor Tony Evers’s sales tax proposal, this is extremely frustrating. A key point of the proposal is that any increase would have to pass a referendum, which means that the people could very well say, “no, thank you.” That does not make them dumb, it may just mean that those specific communities have a different vision for what services their local governments should be providing.

Secondly, it is frustrating that Bewley let her ego get in the way of getting the sales tax proposal through the Republican-held legislature. Vos didn’t even say anything that I would have considered offensive, yet she just had to get a sarcastic word in while she’s supposed to be winning his support. Talk about “not smart.”

But while Vos was rightly taken aback by Bewley’s ill-advised retort, he may be wandering into the same erroneous mindset with the comments he made after the meeting. He said that there was zero chance that the sales tax proposal was going to happen, calling it “dead on arrival.”

Again, a key component of the sales tax proposal is that the voters would have to approve any sales tax increase in their jurisdiction. Why would Vos be against the ability for residents to determine what revenues their municipalities or counties should be able to raise, unless he thinks they are “not smart” enough to vote the way he believes they should?

Even though the Wisconsin League of Municipalities endorsed the proposal, Vos specifically mentioned Milwaukee as the main culprit for why it is being asked for in the first place. It is true that things have been mismanaged in Milwaukee; there is very little doubt about that. Most Milwaukee politicians railed against policies such as Act 10, without which the city’s fiscal crisis would be ten times worse than what it is today, specifically the pension crisis. But that does not mean we can just let the city crash and burn as penalty for its past errors. There are a lot of great people that live here and we need help.

The city is currently paying $71 million for pension obligations but by 2023 it will be $160 million, a spike that will result in deep cuts to services such as the Police and Fire Departments. Already Milwaukee is having to cut between 100 and 150 police officers per year to make the budget work. Homicides, shootings, and reckless driving are on the rise, so the police department cuts come at an especially inopportune time. The Fire Department is also stretched thin leading to an increase in structure fires and fire-related deaths as it has had to pause door-to-door fire prevention efforts.

Earlier this year, Milwaukee’s Common Council was debating accepting the COPS Grant because the city was apprehensive about being on the hook for the officers it would provide after three years (when the pension crisis will hit) per the grant’s terms. But many of us in Milwaukee emailed, called, and knocked on doors to get our aldermen to support it, hoping that the state would look upon us with mercy if they saw that we weren’t just trying to “defund the police.” We were successful and the Common Council ended up accepting the grant.

But now we need the state to cover our rear, otherwise it will be the Wisconsin Legislature that is “defunding our police.”

That assistance can come one of two or even both ways. The first way would be to allow the people of Milwaukee to empower our Common Council to raise new revenues through a sales tax with a referendum. This gives us local control, and truly gives the people the power to determine the city’s destiny, rather than politicians who work in Madison that don’t live here AND big tax-and-spend Milwaukee politicians. No sales tax could be raised unless the people ask for it.

The other way is that the city can continue to be overly dependent on state welfare through the shared revenue program, from which we would need a substantial increase in order to avoid disastrous cuts to city services. As a Milwaukeean, I would like to see both options employed for the city, but at the very least we should get the ability to determine our sales tax through referendum.

Milwaukee is a city with lots of potential. The residents just need to be given the tools that other cities in the country have: a much more blended revenue structure, including a sales tax.

We can solve our problems if we are given the power to do so through referendum. Speaker Vos, we the people are smart enough to handle it.

That’s one view — the small-D democratic view, perhaps. Another is that Milwaukee County voters (and voters in Dane County and several other counties in this state at least) would of course choose to raise their taxes. And when people raise their own taxes, you become a tax hell, which Wisconsin remains, particularly when any effort to cut government spending is termed “disastrous.”

In a general sense, though, I do favor required voter approval of all tax increases through referendum as part of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which should be part of the state Constitution instead of trusting that the voters will make correct choices in who decides spending and taxes, since the voters failed in that regard in 2018 and 2020.



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