By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday that he and Republicans who control the Legislature are working toward a bipartisan compromise on a bill that would increase funding for local governments, a measure that the Democrat promised to veto as originally introduced.
The Assembly was slated to vote on the measure Wednesday afternoon, despite ongoing negotiations and no announcement of an agreement with Evers or the Senate. Evers said he expected negotiations to continue for weeks.
“I am optimistic and hopeful we can find a compromise that both meets the needs of our local communities and ensures our local partners have more flexibility to make decisions that work for them,” he said in a statement, a rare outward sign of bipartisanship between the governor and the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a text message that the bill would still be voted on Wednesday, but he did not say whether any changes that came about through the negotiations would be brought forward. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu declined to comment.
Evers did not detail what compromises may be reached on the plan, which at its core would change how local governments are funded and increase state aid for the first time in decades. One of the biggest sticking points has been whether Milwaukee taxpayers would have to approve a sales tax increase before the city or county could enact it.
Under the bill as introduced, Milwaukee could levy a 2% sales tax and Milwaukee County could add 0.375% sales tax to its current 0.5% sales tax. Both would need voter approval, a requirement that Milwaukee officials have opposed.
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson warned lawmakers last week that the city faces insolvency by 2025 without help. He, along with groups representing municipalities, police and firefighters, as well as numerous mayors and other local officials, all testified in support of reaching a deal that increases funding.
Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold, faces an underfunded pension system. Milwaukee has increasingly become reliant on federal pandemic aid to fund its essential services, which city leaders have said cost $150 million more per year to maintain.
At its core, the bill as introduced would increase funding to counties, cities, towns and villages by $227 million, or 10%, over the next two years, but could only be spent on police and fire protection, emergency medical services, emergency response communications, public works and transportation.
The $1.5 billion in aid to municipalities — known as shared revenue — would be paid for by tapping 20% of the state’s 5-cent sales tax, an idea Evers has supported.
But Evers, and many of the local officials who testified last week, said the current proposal comes with too many strings attached. Those include banning public health officials from ordering businesses closed for more than two weeks, cutting aid to communities that reduce the number of police officers and firefighters and prohibiting local advisory referenda questions.
It would also mandate that local governments approve projects under the state’s land stewardship program that are north of U.S. Highway 8, which runs across roughly the northernmost quarter of the state. Republicans have long raised concerns about such projects that protect the land from future development.
Evers has also said that in light of the state’s $7 billion budget surplus, more aid should go to local governments.
“Today, we are in a much better place than we were just two weeks ago,” Evers said Wednesday. “All parties have been willing to set differences aside, all parties have worked to operate in good faith, and all parties have come to the table committed to finding common ground—and for that, I am very grateful.”
The shared revenue program to fund local governments, created in 1911, has remained nearly unchanged for almost 30 years, despite overall growth in tax revenues. Shared revenue for counties and municipalities was cut in 2004, 2010 and 2012 and since then has been relatively flat.