Most La Crosse County voters support the idea of paying more in sales taxes to generate money to repair the county highway system.
Tuesday’s ballot featured an advisory referendum asking county voters for support to establish a premier resort area tax, which adds a half-percent to all taxable sales at businesses designated as “tourism related.” The referendum won decisive approval by a vote of 8,361 to 6,853 (55 to 45 percent).
La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson said she was pleasantly surprised at the referendum’s margin of victory, especially considering the push by the opposition in the past couple weeks.
“Nobody is jumping up and down and screaming for joy about a new local tax,” Johnson said.
The state Revenue Department estimates the tax would raise $6.6 million annually, with the county planning to use $5 million of that for catching up on an $87 million backlog of road work and sharing the remainder with the county’s 18 municipalities.
According to the Revenue Department, the tax would be charged at roughly half the businesses in the county. The categories of business types at which the tax would be charged are based on industry designations that each business decides itself, based on where it gets most of its revenue. For example, gas stations are required to collect the tax, but a business like Kwik Trip that generates a lot of revenue from sales of food and beverages, might designate itself as a grocery store, which would be exempt.
The complicated nature of the tax might have deterred some from supporting it, but Jenna Ring, a sophomore at UW-La Crosse, voted for it even though she was learning of it for the first time at the polls. She said if the roads need to be fixed and the county was asking for this money, it must be needed.
Josh Soine also voted “yes,” saying the need for more investment in roads is plain. “The money’s got to come from someplace,” he said.
An older couple outside the La Crosse Public Library, who asked not to be identified, voted against the tax, saying it was unfair to visitors and that they weren’t convinced that the county was spending its money wisely on road work. They were concerned too much was being spent on bike trails.
Another voter, a La Crosse man who didn’t want to be identified, gave the county credit for creativity but said the sales tax might not be the best route. The solution really has to come from Madison, he said.
Johnson agrees the real issue is lack of support from the state and she said the referendum will help drive that message home. “For me, the takeaway is voters have definitely expressed a desire to fix local roads,” she said. “I think it has been a really healthy, for the most part, constructive conversation about how challenging paying for roads is. We expect the state to do better than they have.”
Tuesday’s referendum was just the first step toward establishing a premier resort area tax. The next step will be for state Rep. Steve Doyle, an Onalaska Democrat who also sits on the county board, to meet with Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to see if he can get traction with the legislation giving the county permission to charge the tax. Walker has twice signed such legislation for municipalities, but La Crosse County is the first county to go after the tax.
State law allows any municipality or county that has at least 40 percent of its equalized property value in tourism-related businesses to charge the tax. Those that fall short like the county, which has only 5 percent, must seek an exception from the Legislature.
If the referendum results are a strong enough statement of support to convince Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature to give La Crosse County an exception, the county board must approve the tax by a two-thirds majority and then conduct another referendum.
“The voters will always get the last word,” Doyle said.
Doyle said he believes the margin of victory shows enough support to make a good case in the Legislature for giving the county the new taxing authority.
“When the electorate says we’re willing to take that step, that sends a pretty powerful message,” Doyle said. “I think what the voters said is they’re willing to take it to the next step.”
Joe Heim, a UW-La Crosse political scientist, said the passage of the referendum was the single biggest surprise in an election of unexpected outcomes.
“I don’t know a single person who thought that was going to pass,” he said. “Historically when a referendum has organized opposition usually it loses. In this case there was opposition out there. Clear opposition, and yet it won.”
Heim interpreted the win as a statement on the condition of county roads.
“It kind of tells you the people who voted drive. If you drive around lax co you know the roads are in trouble. People felt from personal experience that something had to be done. … It sure was an indication that people are willing to tax themselves.”