La Crosse County voters will have five county referendum questions to answer on the November ballot: one asking whether the state should legalize marijuana and four related to transportation funding.
The La Crosse County Board approved the marijuana and transportation ballot questions on 17-8 votes. While the marijuana legalization question was approved in the same form that came through board committees, the transportation funding referendum took a radical detour from the previously agreed upon format.
Going into the meeting, the board was to consider a multiple-choice question that asked voters what the county should do to address the $101 million in needed county road and bridge work if the state Legislature does not approve the premier resort area tax approved by voters in an April 2017 referendum: impose a $56 per year vehicle registration tax (also called a “wheel tax”) on cars and light trucks or raise property taxes for county purposes by 15 percent.
Board member Steve Doyle, who also represents the 94th District in the state Assembly, said he’d been thinking about what questions he would need to answer if he were able to get a hearing for legislation he has introduced that would allow the county to impose a premier resort area tax. Special legislation is required because the 0.5 percent sales tax on tourism-related items was designed for areas that rely heavily on tourism, and La Crosse County doesn’t meeting the requirements.
Instead of the committee-approved transportation referendum question, Doyle offered an alternate four-question, yes-or-no package of questions that asks about the wheel tax and the property tax hike, and also asks people again whether they support the premier resort area tax. The package begins by asking whether voters support the county spending $5 million annually to for road and bridge projects.
Based on the results of a recent Marquette University survey that showed 60 percent of respondents in western Wisconsin rate their roads as fair or poor, Doyle thinks he knows how people will answer the first question on the ballot.
“The people of La Crosse County believe we have a problem, and they want to do something about it,” Doyle said. “We need to take action. We need to somehow increase spending on our roads. The biggest question with this body is what to do.”
In more than two hours of discussion, several major amendments were proposed to Doyle’s referendum questions, including sharing 25 percent of the wheel tax proceeds with the city of La Crosse and adding questions about paying for roads by cutting $5 million from other parts of the county budget and encouraging the state to increase vehicle registration fees and the gas tax.
Those amendments all failed by lopsided votes, although the board did approve a separate resolution encouraging the state to come up with a sustainable source of funding for transportation.
What should La Crosse County do to pay for its growing list of transportation projects?
Compared with the road funding referendums, the marijuana question was very simple, asking for a yes or no to the following: “Should the State of Wisconsin legalize the use of marijuana by adults 21 years or older, to be taxed and regulated in the same manner that alcohol is regulated in the State of Wisconsin, with proceeds from taxes used for education, healthcare and infrastructure?”
Most of the discussion on the opposition side focused not on whether the county board should give the voters a chance to weigh in on marijuana legalization, instead focusing on the dangers of drug use.
Board member Vicki Burke didn’t think it was an appropriate question to ask voters. “Our job is the protection, the health and safety of people,” she said. “People voting at the polls don’t have that responsibility. We do.”
Board member Ray Ebert also objected to the marijuana referendum, but he raised a concern over the estimated $3,000 it will cost to put the question on the ballot. “Just from a fiscal point of view, the three grand is a waste. It won’t do us any good,” he said.
Doyle previously opposed the marijuana question because he was worried it would distract from the more important question of how to fund upkeep of the county road system. After hearing from a lot of Democrats who wanted him to support the ballot measure, he decided to seek some balance from the other side of the aisle.
He went to the La Crosse County Republican Party Facebook page, where he found a poll posted on marijuana legalization. On that poll, 85 percent supported legalization. While he said he wasn’t taking a position on legalization, he said he wanted to give people a chance to express their opinion.
Should marijuana use be legalized?
Several board members spoke in favor of the referendum and for legalization.
“The war on drugs has been a spectacularly unsuccessful failure. … Americans are waking up to the futility of this approach,” board member Monica Kruse said. “I feel very strongly that the time has come for us to add our voice to the chorus across Wisconsin asking the Legislature to tackle this question.”