State approval for one portion of the sales tax requested by Milwaukee County voters in November 2008, a half-cent tax to take the county bus lines off the property tax rolls (while providing funds to restore canceled service across the county), would finally be provided by LRB 3451/8, a draft bill circulated Tuesday January 19 by Representatives Tamara Grigsby, Peter Barca, and Robert Turner, and by Senators Lena Taylor and John Lehman. LRB stands for Legislative Reference Bureau, a first step before an AB (Assembly Bill) and SB (Senate Bill) are formally introduced. The authors are seeking additional co-sponsors before January 26.
While Governor James Doyle held a press conference the same day to introduce the general concept, and line up important support from Milwaukee area business executives, LRB 3451/8 represents the hard work of many in the legislature, including Milwaukee’s Grigsby and Taylor, to put together the nuts and bolts of a bill which could obtain majority support in the state senate and assembly. Grigsby has been in negotiations with Doyle’s office weekly since last June, when he vetoed the authorization for a Milwaukee County half cent sales tax that legislators had already included in the state budget. Turner and Lehman, from Racine, and Barca from Kenosha, are strong supporters of regional and local transit.
Considering the impressive support for the bill from Milwaukee Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Chairman Tim Sullivan, and executives of several major companies in Milwaukee and Racine, it is expected that earnest efforts will be forthcoming from southeastern Wisconsin’s business community to secure Republican support for the measure. It has never been true that all large employers are major Republican donors, nor that all wage laborers vote Democratic, but the importance of transit to major employers should be significant to Republican legislators, traditionally committed to fostering a favorable business climate in the state.
The stated objectives of the new bill include “significant investment in local bus transit systems,” adding thousands of jobs in southeastern Wisconsin, and improving access to transit in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties, to “foster a more competitive buisness climate for industry and entrepreneurial growth,” while providing considerable property tax relief. Milwaukee County, because voters already approved and requested the half cent sales tax, is prohibited by the new bill from imposing a hotel or motel tax, or a local motor vehicle registration fee, as a source of transit funding.
This legislation authorizes Racine and Kenosha counties to implement a sales tax to support local bus systems, if voters approve by referendum, as Milwaukee did, and allows Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties to join the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SERTA) if any of those counties choose to do so in the future. It is a very flexible approach, which recognizes local needs and priorities, rather than putting every county in the region within a single rigid set of requirements. Existing transit systems can be organized under local Interim Regional Transit Authorities (IRTAs) while SERTA focuses on high speed rail connecting the three counties.
Sustaining and improving existing bus systems is necessary before the Federal Transit Administration will consider support for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail project. Milwaukee County’s IRTA would be required to either reduce fares by 30 percent within two years, or increase transit service (restored routes or more buses running more often), or a combination of both, within two years. Alternately, Milwaukee County could invest an equal amount of the new revenue in new buses, or comply with the law by restoring service to what it was in 2001.