A La Crosse County committee approved a simplified road-funding referendum Friday morning, forwarding a two-question ballot question for the full La Crosse Count Board to consider on Thursday.
The proposed referendum approved by the county’s Executive Committee has a preamble that affirms the county’s commitment to pursuing a premier resort area tax of 0.5 percent on goods and services designated as tourism-related. This tax that was supported by 55 percent of the voters in an April 2017 advisory referendum.
To make the so-called tourism tax happen, though, the county has to get a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, followed by a binding referendum. Legislation was introduced during the last session, but the Republican legislative committee chairs didn’t hold committee hearings on the bills.
The new referendum question asks voters to choose between two options should the Legislature fail to act on the premier resort area tax: a $56 county vehicle registration fee, also called a wheel tax, or an increase in property taxes of about 15 percent.
The referendum question previously proposed asked voters to choose between the premier resort area tax, the wheel tax and the property tax, and the question was so long it might have forced a two-sided ballot. It was enough to make voters’ eyes glaze over, County Administrator Steve O’Malley said.
“The format of the ballot really changes how you think about this,” he said. Also, he added, “the more choices you have, the more risk there is that we would get nothing out of this.”
Board member Andrea Richmond agreed: “You need to keep this whole thing simple, or people aren’t even going to touch it.”
She disagreed, however, that the county should continue to pursue the premier resort area tax, saying that voters didn’t understand what they were voting on in the April 2017 referendum.
Richmond, who is also a La Crosse Common Council member, objected to the wheel tax, saying La Crosse residents would get nothing out of the tax to improve city roads. She sought to add language to the referendum that would give La Crosse 25 percent of the proceeds from a wheel tax but got no support from other committee members.
In the end, Richmond was the sole vote against approving the road-funding referendum resolution.
The new draft of the referendum question initially included a third choice for voters: “Neglect the identified unmet highway needs and wait for action by the Governor and Legislature.”
Although board member Patrick Barlow supported offering the third choice, all other members voted to take that off the ballot.
“This is an advisory referendum about taking care of our roads. ‘Let the roads go to hell’ is definitely not on this ballot,” said County Board Chairwoman Tara Johnson, who chairs the executive committee. “We are saying we intend to take care of our roads.”
Bill Feehan, a former county board member and a member of the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce subcommittee studying transportation solutions, argued at Wednesday’s executive committee meeting for a “none of the above” referendum option, counting on the state to increase aid to counties and municipalities. He was disappointed in the referendum choices approved Friday.
“I think the problem of the referendum is it’s a forced choice. It forces people into making a choice that is a false choice,” Feehan said. “I don’t like the solution. I think we can do better.”
The “reasonable course,” Feehan said, is to pursue an increase in local transportation funding aid from the state.
Ron Chamberlain, the county’s highway commissioner, estimates that even if the state returned transportation aid levels to the highest they’ve ever been, it would not even cover half of what is needed for the county to keep pace with its highway needs.
The county has been pushing for more state funding for transportation. In fact, the county board is expected to vote Thursday on a resolution pushing the state for a sustainable source of transportation funding. But county officials are skeptical that the state will do anything, which is why they are pursuing local solutions.
“The idea that the state Legislature and the governor are going to pursue any solution is hypothetical at best,” said board member Sharon Hampson. “There’s no will in Madison to do what needs to be done. The main answer is to raise taxes, and they think that’s a terrible thing to do.”