La Crosse County voters last week supported a new half-percent sales tax to pay for road improvements, but it won’t be in place in time for the 2018 budget. In fact, there’s still a pretty good chance it might not happen at all.

County Board members discussed the election results and next steps at their monthly planning meeting Monday night, and three big steps remain before the county starts charging its premier resort area tax: state legislation, a two-thirds vote of the board and another approval from the voters.

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Steve Doyle mug

Doyle

Board member Steve Doyle, a Democrat from Onalaska who represents the 94th District in the state Assembly, said he plans to wait until the fall floor session in Madison to introduce legislation. Before he would propose a bill to give the county the authority to charge the sales tax, he said he’d run it by Gov. Scott Walker to see if he’d sign it and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to see if the bill would get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Assembly.

The spring session, Doyle indicated, is not a good time to ask. “Right now, Gov. Walker and Speaker Vos have a lot on their minds other than this bill,” he said.

And it’s possible that the bill might not even get all the way through the process in the fall session, Doyle said, which would delay consideration of the tax into the next biennium.

Last week’s advisory referendum on the tax passed 8,361 to 6,864, or 55 to 45 percent, which was a surprise to many, including County Administrator Steve O’Malley.

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Steve O'Malley mug

O’Malley

Surprise or not, the result was encouraging and meaningful, because people who vote in local elections tend to pay more attention to issues than in the fall general elections. “People who come to spring elections are more engaged than other folks,” O’Malley said. “People came to the polls and had some understanding of the challenges involved in infrastructure funding.”

One of the biggest surprises of the election was how strong the support was from the city of La Crosse, where it passed with 57 percent “yes” votes despite having a small share of the total county highway miles — and despite Mayor Tim Kabat’s public opposition to the tax.

It also was a surprise that voters in four of the county’s 12 towns, where county highways are more prevalent, voted against the tax. The referendum got a thumbs down in the towns of Barre, Burns, Onalaska and Washington — with almost 57 percent voting no in Burns — while voters in the city of Onalaska were evenly split, with “yes” votes having only a 12-vote edge.

The premier resort area tax, which is charged on all taxable items at all businesses deemed to be tourism-related under the enabling legislation, can be used without state OK in municipalities or counties that have at least 40 percent of their equalized property value made up of tourism-related businesses. With 5 percent, La Crosse County falls far short of the threshold.

The tax, which would be charged at roughly half of the county’s businesses, would raise about $6.6 million per year. The county plans to share 25 percent of that revenue with the county’s 18 municipalities, and how that money would be divided was a major topic of discussion at Monday’s meeting.

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La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson

Johnson

“This will be an important part of the overall process,” board Chairwoman Tara Johnson said, saying that it basically comes down to a choice between coming up with a formula that could govern the funding split every year or deciding every year how to allocate the funding.

Several board members argued for a simple formula of some type, but there was no consensus on what that would look like. Others suggested municipalities could get more mileage out of the funding if there was an allocation process that allowed some variability to help leverage grant money to help pay for major projects.

In any case, getting input from the municipalities will be a priority before any decision on splitting the funding is made.

“I’m concerned about buy-in. We have one more referendum that has to pass,” Doyle said. “I really think this should not be the county being Big Brother. We did not say we would be puppeteers with that 25 percent.”

Doyle also said he thought it important to get working on a funding allocation formula or process now instead of waiting until after legislative action. From a strategic standpoint, he said, the more that’s accomplished before the bill gets before the Legislature, the better. “It looks better from the state perspective if we’ve at least started that process.”

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Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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