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