Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 23, 2019
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — If the Senate doesn’t move soon to close out the Miller Park sales tax, the money drawn in the interim will be dumped into the state’s coffers rather than the Milwaukee-area counties that have paid the tax for some 23 years.
Capitol sources tell Empower Wisconsin that a delay would unnecessarily extend the tax and divert the money, millions of dollars worth, to the state’s general fund.
As Empower Wisconsin reported earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald pledged the bill, co-authored by Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), will make it to the floor and will pass “before the end of the session.”
But the end of the session, at least floor time, is March. If the bill doesn’t pass and isn’t signed by the governor until then, that presents a taxing problem, sources say.
On March 10, the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball District is expected to certify that it has generated enough money to meet its financial obligations, to fund the construction of Milwaukee’s Miller Park baseball stadium.
At that time, sources say, the state Department of Revenue no longer has the authority to collect the 0.1 percent sales tax that has been in place in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Washington and Waukesha counties since 1996.
But taxes are like zombies, or chickens with severed heads. They go on for a time after they’re dead.
The sales tax, under law, would have to wind down over 120 days, which would keep the tax going until July. July, however, is the beginning of a fiscal quarter. A tax cannot end until the fiscal quarter ends, so the Miller Park sales tax would be extended by default until the end of September, sources say.
All the while, the tax revenue doesn’t go to the district, it doesn’t go to the local governments that authorized collections. It goes to the state’s general fund, where the money can effectively be used for anything the Legislature deems fit, sources say. Revenue derived from the tax used to build bike trails in Dane County isn’t quite what the residents of the five-county taxing district had in mind.
If Wanggaard’s bill passed soon, the tax would have a lag time of about 20 days, officially ending at the end of March.
Wanggaard’s office declined to comment for this story. An official from the state Department of Revenue did not return a call seeking comment.
In June, the Assembly passed the Miller Park tax-sunset bill on a voice vote.
The sales tax has pumped in more than a half billion dollars to fund the construction and operations of the home of Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers.
State officials originally had hoped the tax would go away five years ago. A down economy at the end of last decade and the rise of untaxed online sales extended the tax’s timeline. At least that’s what district officials said at the time.
Controversial, to say the least, the sales tax cost state Sen. George Petak (R-Racine) his job. Voters recalled the senator after he cast the deciding vote for the district and its taxing authority.
A consultant for the stadium district in 2018 said that, barring any economic downturns, the district was in position to retire the sales tax “sometime between late calendar year 2019 and early calendar year 2020.”
State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said it’s time to retire the tax.
“I’m glad Senator Wanggaard is advancing these important bills. To ensure that excessive taxes are not collected the State Senate should act quickly to address this issue. The taxpayers have held up their end of the bargain and now it’s time to end this tax,” said Stroebel, whose 20th Senate District includes two of the counties in the sales tax zone.