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La Crosse County officials voted Thursday to move ahead with consideration of two advisory referendums on the Nov. 6 ballot, one on marijuana legalization and one on transportation funding options.

The La Crosse County Board’s Executive Committee, made up of the chairs of other board committees, asked county staff to prepare resolutions to put the questions on the ballot. The full board would vote in July on putting them on the November ballot.

Should marijuana use be legalized?

You voted:

Final wording of the referendum questions has not been set, but the general gist was spelled out in discussion of draft ballot measures at Thursday’s committee meeting.

The marijuana question would read something like this: Should cannabis (marijuana) be legalized in Wisconsin for use by adults 21 years or older, and be taxed and regulated like alcohol?

There’s momentum on the side of marijuana legalization in the United States, and Canada has opted to legalize it nationwide. On the Executive Committee, there was overwhelming support for at least asking the voters whether they think Wisconsin should join the trend.

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Monica Kruse

Kruse

“It’s pretty clear that the war on drugs, which has been pretty much against marijuana, has been going on for 50 years without much success,” board member Monica Kruse said. “I think we need to look at a different paradigm. Regulating marijuana the way we regulate alcohol is the way we should do it.”

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Kim Cable

Cable

“I don’t think there’s any harm in asking the public what they feel about this,” added board member Kim Cable.

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Andrea Richmond mug

Richmond

Not everybody at the meeting favored the referendum. Board member Andrea Richmond said she didn’t want to see the referendum on the ballot until officials had more information about what has happened in states that have legalized marijuana already.

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Tim Gruenke

Gruenke

District Attorney Tim Gruenke said he had no position on whether there should be a referendum on marijuana legalization. He noted he could see some advantages to legalizing it, but there also could be unforeseen consequences.

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La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson

Helgeson

Sheriff Steve Helgeson said he would be opposed to the referendum and to legalizing marijuana, with one major concern being a potential increase in the number of drivers operating vehicles under the influence of marijuana.

“It’s much more difficult for officers to detect if drivers are impaired by marijuana,” Helgeson said. “There’s no easy way to determine exactly what somebody’s level would be and whether that would rise to the level of impairment.”

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Steve Doyle mug

Doyle

Board member Steve Doyle, who also represents the 94th District in the State Assembly, said he would rather not see the marijuana legalization question on the ballot because it might distract from the question on transportation funding, which he said is a crisis.

“If we put other things on the ballot, I’m concerned that it clutters things up on the ballot,” Doyle said. “It’s taking our eye off the ball.”

The transportation funding referendum will be more complicated, but it will start out by telling voters that there are $123 million in unmet road needs and that the county needs $5 million in additional revenue to begin catching up with needed road and bridge construction and maintenance.

Voters then would be able to select one of three options.

The first option would have the county continue to pursue a premier resort area tax, a 0.5 percent sales tax collected on goods and services designated as “tourism-related,” which would bring in $6.2 million per year, $5 million for the county and $1.2 million to be split among the county’s municipalities.

Voters already approved a premier resort area tax referendum in April 2017, with 55 percent voting in favor of it. The La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce lobbied state lawmakers not to support legislation required for La Crosse County to institute the tax. County Board Chair Tara Johnson said Chamber officials told her the spring referendum results were not a good measurement of voter sentiment because of low voter turnout.

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La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson

Johnson

Johnson insisted the vote was perfectly valid. “Anytime voters go to the polls, I believe what they say, whatever month they go to the polls,” she said.

To revive the special sales tax’s chances in the Legislature, county officials are looking to see whether they will have another clear statement of support from voters.

This time, voters will have two other options on the ballot, each of which would generate the $5 million that Ron Chamberlain, the county highway commissioner, estimates the county needs in additional annual revenue to start catching up on road work.

The second option on the ballot would be a countywide annual vehicle registration fee, also known as a “wheel tax.” To bring in the same amount as the premier resort area tax, the wheel tax would need to be $70.50 per vehicle per year.

The amount of the wheel tax to be included in the referendum is still up in the air, though. It’s possible it might be lowered to the level where it would bring in $5 million per year, or it might be kept at $70.50 with the county dividing up the extra $1.2 million among the county’s municipalities as it would with the premier resort area tax proceedings.

The wheel tax differs from the tourism tax in that municipalities also could institute their own wheel taxes even if the county has a wheel tax in place.

The third option would involve getting the $5 million in needed annual revenue from property taxes. To do this, the county would have to get around state-imposed levy limits by taking out one-year $5 million loans every year so it could put the money on the debt-service levy, which is exempt from state limits.

The impact of the third option on property tax rates was not known at Thursday’s meeting, but it would be spelled out in the referendum wording.

Richmond, who also is a member of the La Crosse Common Council, said the county would be making a mistake to put the premier resort area tax on the ballot again, arguing that while the majority of La Crosse city voters support the tax, she wasn’t sure a lot of people understand the tax. 

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Entertainment and county government reporter

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.

(10) comments

Buggs Raplin

Marijuana will soon be legal in all states. Those states already endorsing legalization are reaping huge tax dollars, which, in Wisconsin could be used to fix our roads. Canada has endorsed legalization. The Tribune should, if they had any journalistic instincts, ask Shilling, Doyle, and Billings how they feel about legalization. I imagine they'd all dodge the question, so maybe this referendum question is Not a BAD IDEA. it would give them support to come out and say the obvious-legalize marijuana.

Enjoylife54669

The la crosse highway department should be have an audit first. Find out where the money is going. From what I see they waste money on stupid stuff or tax dollars. Highway Commissioner should be held accountable some of his decisions are wasting our money

canman

The county board is out its mind, first they spend 23 million plus on the associated bank debacle, then come up with taxing schemes because of their incompetence. The wheel tax is the worst idea as it impacts the people who drive few miles the most as many of this group are on fixed incomes. Also the rhetoric about a resort tax only affecting tourists is false, just look at what would be taxed. Tara and company needs to get out and talk to the constituents they are supposed to represent not the squeaky wheel crowd for advice.

Prairie

The Mj referendum is just another way the democrats in this area are trying to make sure their supporters show up on election day. No surprise.

Cassandra2

Really? Do you honestly think that republicans don't smoke pot? Do you not understand that wealthy business elites are the ones who fund growing operations and dispensaries in states where it is legal and regulated? The ignorance baffles.

Buggs Raplin

Doyle thinks two ballot questions might be confusing to the voters. If I got that right, it's kind of insulting.

ElPresidente

I say just stick to giving tickets and stop throwing people in jail for possessing a joint or two. Raise the amount you can have in your possession before you can get arrested. Like drinking underage is handled maybe.

Logged

Legalize it and tax it like alcohol or tobacco

lutefisk

still illegal in wisc people

Buena Vista

Who cares if it's still illegal? - Doing illegal stuff can be pretty fun and satisfying.

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