November referendum may loom for commuter rail
By Tony Anderson
Special to The Daily Reporter
A Dane County supervisor opposed to the cost of commuter rail wants to put the project to a countywide vote this fall.
“We’re trying to put their feet to the fire and say, ‘Let’s have this referendum,’” said first-term Supervisor Bill Clausius, referring to members of the Dane County Regional Transit Authority. “Honest to God, this reflects what the voters in my district want. The City Council in Sun Prairie, which I represent, passed a resolution some time ago against commuter rail.”
Clausius and Supervisor Donald Imhoff on Wednesday announced their plan to introduce a resolution at Thursday’s Dane County Board meeting calling for an advisory referendum asking if “commuter rail from Middleton to the Town of Burke should be funded by a half-cent increase in sales tax.”
“I think there’s an expectation from the public that they will have this referendum question on the November ballot,” Clausius said. “November will be a big election and it would make sense to give the largest number of people the opportunity to vote on the referendum.”
Other supervisors, however, argued the County Board last year considered the topic and decided the board is not the correct government panel to propose the referendum. Instead, those supervisors said, any referendum should come from the Dane County RTA.
“We already took this issue up last session,” County Board Chairman Scott McDonnell said, “and it was the position of the County Board that the RTA is the entity that decides whether to raise the sales tax in the RTA district.”
RTA members Steve Hiniker and Mark Opitz were not immediately available.
Additionally, McDonnell said, it does not make sense to hold a countywide referendum when the RTA taxing district covers only half of the county and 70 percent of its residents. People outside the taxing area should not be voting on this issue, he said.
Clausius called that argument specious. He said people outside of the RTA’s jurisdiction will pay the sales tax when they shop in the county’s population centers.
“They should have a voice,” he said.
The timing of a referendum is all wrong, McDonnell said, because the RTA does not yet have a plan to present to voters. There is no indication, he said, of whether the money would go toward express buses, commuter rail or some other options.
“It doesn’t make any sense to put this thing on the ballot in November unless the RTA board has a plan for how to spend that half-cent sales tax,” McDonnell said. “I don’t know how you go to referendum without that unless you are just opposed to transit.”
Regarding the need for commuter rail, Clausius said, he is concerned about the cost of getting it up and running and the cost of maintaining it. He said he plans to circulate the referendum proposal for additional co-sponsors and wants the board to take up the issue during its August or September meetings.
“The timing is not good,” he said. “The public is increasingly concerned about greater government spending and debt service.”