CHICAGO - The vote late last week by the Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Finance Committee to create regional transportation authorities with taxing powers in the Milwaukee and Madison areas has generated praise and criticism - with some calling on lawmakers and Gov. Jim Doyle to reject the package.
The plan approved by the committee would create a Milwaukee County transit authority with the power to impose a 1% sales tax to raise $130 million annually to fund transit, parks and emergency services.
The Milwaukee County Board supports the tax and voters favored it in an advisory referendum last year, while county executive Scott Walker is against it. The city of Milwaukee stands to receive 15% of the funds, which officials said would go help the city avoid spending cuts in emergency services.
In a joint statement, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Willie L. Hines Jr. praised the legislation.
"This vote showed leadership to move Milwaukee into the future by rescuing public transit and helping preserve vital city services," they said. "The new framework offers our residents a truly regional solution that considers the transportation needs of citizens throughout Milwaukee County."
The legislation also establishes a commuter rail authority represented by officials in Milwaukee County and Kenosha and Racine counties to the south. That authority could raise the car rental fee of $2 up to $16 to fund the $200 million, 33-mile KRM Commuter Link rail line. The new agency also received authorization to issue up to $50 million in bonds.
A new regional transportation authority in Dane County, which includes the state capital of Madison, would also be created with the power to impose a half-cent sales tax to fund transit and commuter rail projects. Local leaders supported the action as they have said the roughly $38 million raised annually would go to offset property taxes.
The key legislative panel rejected Doyle's proposal to also create a regional transit authority in the Fox Valley with the power to enact a half-cent sales tax, as well as a legislative council recommendation to permit other areas of the state to establish regional transportation authorities with taxing authority. The vote on Friday followed all-night negotiations.
While some state legislators and local lawmakers criticized the absence of those measures, others also contested the panel's decision not to commit any funding for the Kenosha and Racine bus systems. Some also warned that the use of the car rental fee to support the commuter rail line endangers federal funding because the federal government doesn't consider that revenue stream reliable. Republicans also expressed frustration with being excluded from the decision on Milwaukee-area agencies or allowing voters to have a say on the taxes.
"It is outrageous that the Democrats passed massive tax increases without letting the public have a voice in the process. The Democrats only support open government when it's convenient for them," said Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. "The committee should be reconvened immediately to reverse its decision."
The package will be included in the Legislature's state budget negotiations. The panel is controlled by Democrats who hold majorities in both chambers and Doyle is a Democrat but his party is also divided over the package, so some changes are expected.