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Editorial: Milwaukee County deserves its sales tax

The prevailing paranoia among many state lawmakers is that attaching their names to any tax increase is the equivalent of erasing their names from the list of state lawmakers.

Four years ago, state law forced Milwaukee County to test those lawmakers’ fortitude. The results, so far, are predictably dismal: two failed bills, with the first seeking a 0.5 percent county sales-tax increase and the other calling for a 1 percent bump.

The bills stemmed from a Nov. 4, 2008, county referendum asking voters whether they would support a 1 percent increase in exchange for removing from the property-tax levy the cost of operating and maintaining parks, transit and emergency medical services. The referendum passed with 52 percent of the voters in favor.

But, according to a 1985 state law, public will isn’t enough. Any attempt by a county to increase its sales tax to more than 0.5 percent requires legislative approval.

The law is maddeningly paternalistic. The statute pegs counties as only creatures of the state, incapable of making responsible, independent taxing decisions beyond an arbitrary point.

The law implies that if the Legislature doesn’t watch closely, counties just might go on tax-increase sprees, damaging their business climates and driving away residents.

It’s a foolish assumption. Counties can’t afford to act so irresponsibly.

The leaders of Milwaukee County, for instance, have no choice but to consider the consequences of a sales-tax increase. If businesses suffer, if people move away, those leaders will lose their jobs.

Milwaukee County supervisors saw that a change in the tax system had merit, so they voted to place the 1 percent sales-tax increase on the 2008 ballot.

State lawmakers, though, don’t look through the local lens, nor do they have any interest in doing so. They see the words “tax increase” and flee. They fear a vote in favor of any tax increase anywhere risks losing the next election to an anti-tax automaton.

And in the political climate of the past four years, that’s a risk many lawmakers are unwilling to take. State Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, who sponsored the 2009 bill for Milwaukee County’s 0.5 percent sales-tax increase, characterized the fear that killed the proposal.

“Members were afraid,” she said, “that it would look like a tax increase.”

Well, yeah, it looked like a tax increase. It was a tax increase.

But it had the backing of a referendum and represented the voice of Milwaukee County’s constituents. That should be enough. That should circumvent any need for legislative approval.

But if the law won’t change, then lawmakers should. The Legislature owes it to the people of Milwaukee County to approve the next bill seeking that sales-tax increase.

It’s the difference between preserving a political job and performing it.

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