Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 8, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Come next month, Madison motorists will be forced to pay a $40 vehicle registration fee — whether they want to or not.
And many don’t.
The liberal common council in this far left city hit its citizens with the “wheel tax” to help pay for a costly and, many argue, unnecessary bus rapid transit system that, like the wheel tax, few Madisonians asked for.
While Madison will have the highest registration fee in Wisconsin, 25 other municipalities and about half as many counties also charge vehicle-owning residents a wheel tax.
Madison motorists will pay a total of $153 in combined annual vehicle registration fees, between the $85 state charge and the $28 Dane County tax.
There was not ballot question, no referendum. The elected city leaders just rammed the tax through, despite objections from residents concerned the tax will disproportionately affect low-income motorists.
Wheel taxes are raising tens of millions of dollars for local governments, but motorists have no say in the matter, shy of turning elected officials out of office generally after the taxes are put in place.
The imposition of the tax could have been directly decided by voters had the Legislature taken up a Republican measure last year.
Assembly Bill 283, authored by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) would require local governments looking to add a vehicle registration fee to receive majority support during a regularly-scheduled election.
“If you have the referendum, you can come out and say, ‘We are going to raise this (fee) to repair our local roads,’ ” Sanfelippo told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in June. “There will be more pressure on the local jurisdiction to use that extra money on the stated purpose of the referendum, rather than just secretly raising their budget somewhere else by swapping the dollars out.”
The bill, originally part of a package of reforms to the state Department of Transportation, died. Lobbyists from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities had threatened to kill it.
Sanfelippo said there is talk that some of the reform bills that didn’t make the cut, including the wheel tax bill, could come back in coming weeks. With the abbreviated winter legislative session in an election year, however, the odds are long that the reform measure would make it through. Even if it did, tax-and-spend Gov. Tony Evers could veto it.
Sanfelippo said Republicans are planning some major bills in the shortened session, including a crime package and a pro-life personhood amendment.
“I think it’s a bill that should be done, but I don’t know whether it will get accomplished,” the lawmaker said of the wheel tax referendum proposal. “If more DOT bills are coming forward we will certainly work to push the rest of our reforms.”
Less than a decade ago, only a handful of Wisconsin communities had wheel taxes on the books, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. That number had climbed to 27 as of the end of 2017. With Madison in place, the count will be at 39, according to the Department of Transportation.