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Conservatively Speaking

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents parts of four counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, and Walworth. Her Senate District 28 includes New Berlin, Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Muskego, Waterford, Big Bend, the town of Vernon and parts of Greenfield, East Troy, and Mukwonago. Senator Lazich has been in the Legislature for more than a decade. She considers herself a tireless crusader for lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.

The 2009-10 general legislative session review: RTAs

Legislation


One of the major issues of contention during the 2009-10 general legislative session was the creation of regional transit authorities (RTAs).

The concept of RTAs is seriously flawed. RTAs are managed by members that are unelected and unaccountable to the taxpaying public. They enjoy wide powers. An RTA may operate a transportation system or provide for its operation by contracting with a public or private organization and impose a half percent sales tax. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that a half-cent sales tax increase to fund RTAs would cost about $172 per household a year.

As legislators deliberated during the 2009-11 state budget process, the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee early on the morning of May 1, 2009 while most of Wisconsin slept voted to increase taxes.
The committee voted 11-5 to create a board that would have the power to impose a one percent sales tax in Milwaukee County. Under the JFC provision, sales tax revenue would fund transit, parks, and emergency medical services. Milwaukee County’s sales tax rate would, if the plan was approved by the full Legislature and Governor Doyle, increase to 6.6 percent.

The five members of the board that would set a one percent sales tax increase would not be elected by the voting public, and thus, would not have accountability for their actions. They would be appointed by the Milwaukee County Board chairman, the Milwaukee mayor and the governor.

The JFC also voted 12-4 to establish a regional transit authority in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties. A $16 car rental fee, an increase of $14
, would fund the authority. The authority would operate a Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter link (KRM) that more than likely would be very costly. The nine-member authority, again, would be un-elected. Members would be appointed by the chairmen of the Milwaukee County and Racine County boards, the Kenosha County executive, the mayors of Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine; and the governor.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “The structure would ensure that local officials with Democratic ties would get to make appointments to the board while those with Republican links would not. For instance, Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser, a former legislator, would get to make an appointment while Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker – a Republican running for governor next year – would not.”

The Joint Finance Committee also rejected the idea of a requirement that light rail could be built in Milwaukee County only if voters approved.

 

The final version of the 2009-11 state budget authorized the creation of RTAs in southeastern Wisconsin, Dane County, the Chippewa Valley, and the Chequamegon Bay area. The Southeast Regional Transit Authority, comprised of Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties is responsible for KRM commuter rail. Within one year the RTA is required to submit a federal New Starts application to move to preliminary engineering, subject to prevailing wage requirements. A rental car fee of up to $18.00 per transaction funds the RTA.

That was 2009.
During February 2010, I was extremely disappointed that the Joint Finance Committee voted along party lines to approve spending over $800 million in federal stimulus money to construct a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. Some of the money will also be used to update existing track that connects Milwaukee to Chicago.

It is astonishing that the cost of the rail line is equivalent to two Miller Parks. You may recall the contentious debate about Miller Park took several months. Yet in less than one half-hour, the JFC debated and voted to approve a likely huge boondoggle. Because the federal allotment for the rail line is nearly $8-million short of expenses, there is a deficit to the project. The state must find a way to fund nearly $8-million every year for operating expenses.

Subsidizing this massive project will jeopardize current and future Wisconsin projects across the state that have been put on hold due to the state Transportation Fund deficit that is exacerbated by Governor Doyle’s numerous Transportation Fund raids.

Job creation claims made by proponents are dubious. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, “Only 55 permanent jobs would be created to operate and maintain the trains, tracks and stations, starting in 2013, the application says.”

According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo, “Approval of the Governor’s request for $810 million for the Milwaukee to Madison high-speed rail project would allow the Department to proceed with work on the project, with the goal of initiating service in January, 2013.”

 

As the legislature rushed to get bills approved before the session ended, a state Assembly panel passed a revamped regional transit bill April 1, 2010, advancing the process of creating an authority that could levy taxes for bus and rail transit in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties. The version of the bill that passed the Transportation Committee on an 8-1 vote allowed the Fox Valley and La Crosse regions to create transit authorities as well. A previous version of the bill included only the southeastern Wisconsin authority. However, Assembly and Senate RTA bills died, and that is good news.

 

I oppose the creation of boards or authorities with appointed members having taxing power.  This is taxation without representation.  The power to tax should only come from elected representation. I vehemently opposed these new taxes and RTAs. Our taxes are high enough.

Governor Doyle has stated that there is support for a sales tax increase to fund transit. Pointing to the results of an advisory November 2008 referendum in Milwaukee County, Doyle told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "It was an overwhelming vote.”  Let's look at the facts.  Not even close, Governor.

According to the Milwaukee County Board of Election Commissioners’ Fall Election Recap of November 2008, the one percent sales tax referendum was approved by 51.97 percent of the voters. The referendum was rejected in every single ward in the following communities: Bayside, Brown Deer, Cudahy, Fox Point, Franklin, Glendale, Greendale, Greenfield, Hales Corners, Oak Creek, River Hills, South Milwaukee, St. Francis, and Whitefish Bay. Voters in Wauwatosa and West Allis also rejected the sales tax increase. The sales tax referendum was approved in the city of Milwaukee by 36, 262 votes, in Shorewood by 990 votes, and in West Milwaukee by 38 votes. 

So, to recap, at the close of the general legislative session April 22, 2010, legislation that would have created RTAs in southeast Wisconsin and in the Fox Cities is dead. The current state budget allows for the creation of RTAs in southeastern Wisconsin, Dane County, the Chippewa Valley, and the Chequamegon Bay area. The Southeast Regional Transit Authority (SERTA), comprised of Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties is responsible for KRM commuter rail. Within one year the RTA is required to submit a federal New Starts application to move to preliminary engineering, subject to prevailing wage requirements. A rental car fee of up to $18.00 per transaction funds the RTA. A plan to construct an $810 million dollar high speed rail project between Milwaukee and Madison was approved. Federal funding will not cover the entire cost of the project meaning the state, i.e., taxpayers will have to come up with the difference.

A mandate for tax increases for a dramatic expansion of transit does not exist.  Rail systems costing billions of dollars are too expensive, fail to attract new riders, and fail to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. While I am very pleased RTA legislation died, I am extremely disappointed that what angry taxpayers call “the choo choo train” was approved and essentially rammed down the throats of Wisconsinites.

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