Assembly representatives in Madison are still dithering over whether to grant Milwaukee County voters the dedicated sales tax funding for Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), that was requested by referendum in November 2008. Despite approval of a consolidated Assembly Bill 282 in the assembly’s Transportation Committee, floor debate is being tied up in amendments, and amendments to amendments. AB 282 consolidates the work of a joint legislative committee, to provide a standard process for local communities who want to initiate a Regional Transit Authority, so individual requests won’t have to come back to the legislature each year, while incorporating pressing needs of Milwaukee County and the Fox Cities.
Among the more damaging distractions is the insistence of some assembly representatives that voters should have yet another referendum before the revenue is made available to Milwaukee County Transit System – meantime, property tax payers would continue to be stuck with the bill for support of the bus lines. Sheer cowardice by several Milwaukee area legislators, Reps. Dave Cullen, Peg Krusick, Fred Kessler, Tony Staskunas and Leon Young, appears to be sustaining the delay. In an election year, it is deemed safer to take a pass on making a real decision, punting it to another referendum, so incumbents can be all things to all people while campaigning — although West Allis and Wauwatosa taxpayers turned out April 12 in support of the bill. John F. Kennedy’s widely admired book, Profiles in Courage, features people in public life who refused to take the easy way out, but these profiles are safely admired from a historical distance – few want to show similar courage in their own lifetime by taking a firm stand.
Kessler and Young have move to reconsider the amendment requiring a second referendum, but the entire bill has been dropped to the bottom of the assembly calendar, and it still requires approval by the state senate. Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker has estimated that Republican votes will be necessary to obtain a majority – which will undoubtedly receive intense attention from the coalition of southeastern Wisconsin employers who lined up in support of the measure.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who opposed the referendum in the first place, has been crying for a second bite at the apple ever since voters approved it. None of the Milwaukee County Democrats lining up with Walker on this issue have explained in floor debate why, after voters asked the legislature for taxing authority, and the legislature has devoted hundreds of hours of work responding to the request, voters should then be asked “Well, do you really, really, want this, now that we’ve put in all this work finding a way to provide you with it?” Authorization in the state budget bill to implement the same dedicated funding was not contingent on a second referendum — legislators understood they were responding to a request voters had already emphatically endorsed.
If the bill fails, a great deal of responsibility for the resulting catastrophic reductions in bus routes across Milwaukee County will fall on Gov. James Doyle, whose ill-considered veto of previous budget legislation authorizing the dedicated transit funding in Milwaukee County made development of this bill a crisis priority for MCTS. The governor made a an almost incomprehensibly quixotic statement in his veto message that the measure requested by Milwaukee County voters was off on the wrong track – the governor wanted nothing to distract from his dream of a consolidated regional transit system, even if MCTS went bankrupt in the meantime.
Critics have continue to insinuate that a half percent sales tax for transit is not what Milwaukee voters endorsed, since the original referendum was for a full percent supporting transit, parks, and EMT. Milwaukee County has done nothing to block adoption of the full package, but the legislature declined to deal with it as a single package. A separate half-cent sales tax supporting the county park system is provided for in AB 504, introduced by Rep. Tamara Grigsby. That ball is in the legislature’s court – it is no reason to impose upon voters the onerous burden of deciding the same questions over and over.