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Assembly Republicans hide propane tax bill in voice vote

Empower Wisconsin | Feb. 27,  2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Assembly Republican leadership got busted for ramming through a bill that would give taxing authority to a propane marketing group — legislation that could hit rural Wisconsin, particularly struggling farmers, with millions of dollars in increased expenses.

Assembly Bill 665 allows the Wisconsin Propane Education and Research Council to levy an assessment (tax) on licensed propane retailers. The Wisconsin Propane Gas Association would first have to hold a referendum on whether to allow the tax of two-tenths of a cent per gallon on propane sold in Wisconsin.

That could mean millions of dollars more in additional propane costs, to be used by the council for anything it deems to be related to safety or training, according to state Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers).

“I think if we’re going to have a multi-million dollar tax increase on rural Wisconsin, which this is primarily targeting, then we should have to take that vote on the record, and I request it in roll call,” Sortwell told his colleagues.

Sortwell’s request wasn’t merely denied, it appears to have been ignored.

On a motion, Speaker Pro Tem Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) quickly called the question, asking that the bill be passed on a voice vote and messaged to the Senate.

In a video clip, Sortwell can be heard calling out, “I asked for a roll call.”

August recognized the objection from the lawmaker and then announced the Assembly would stand informal. A short time later, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) called repeated the motion, and just like that the bill was approved — on a voice vote — and sent to the Senate.

Why?

August’s office did not respond to Empower Wisconsin’s question regarding the procedural move.

Sortwell says he knows why.

“In my humble opinion they didn’t want people to be on record on it, especially the rural reps,” he said.

Sortwell said he didn’t think the bill would have passed had it been put to a roll call vote. Other legislative Republicans who spoke to Empower Wisconsin share that belief. The bill on its face, giving taxing authority to a non-governmental entity, does not sit well with a number of conservatives, Capitol insiders say.

But the hastily passed legislation comes with a sweetener to entice Republican senators. An amendment would push back the elimination of a small portion of the gas tax refund or credit to convenience stores. The refund aims to cover gas evaporation losses. Gov. Tony Evers cut the refund beginning next year; the amendment extends the refund until 2024.

Sortwell said he believes leadership bypassed the floor rules, which allow Assembly members to request a roll call vote, if they can find 15 other lawmakers to support the motion. Sortwell said he had the numbers, but he was never given the chance to prove it. He also said he made clear in caucus that he would ask the for a vote on the record.

One Republican lawmaker did say that he didn’t think Sortwell had enough members to bring the bill to a roll call vote.

“I just think if we’re going to give away the ability to tax then we should have the guts to stand up and have our votes known,” Sortwell said.

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