Madison Common Council Narrowly Approves Unpopular $40 Wheel Tax

Despite major opposition by residents, the Madison Common Council approved a $40 motor vehicle registration fee (aka 'wheel tax') on an 11-8 vote on Oct. 29 to help fund the city's new East-West Bus Rapid Transit system.

3 minute read

November 29, 2019, 7:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

Wisconsin Capitol

Stacy Ellen / Shutterstock

"[I]t was clear Tuesday night that the fee was unpopular, both with constituents and the alders, reported Sara Maslar-Donar for the local ABC news affiliate, WKOW, on Oct. 29 (see news video in article).

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway made a public plea to alders Tuesday night after several hours of discussion and three failed amendments to the fee, which included lowering it to $20.

“I need your support on this,” she said. “The city needs your support on this.”

Chris Rickert, who reports on Nov. 25 (in source article) on public correspondence received by the common council released under a public records request from the Wisconsin State Journal, shows "opposition to the highest-in-the-state wheel tax was running about 10-to-1." He called the legislation the mayor's "signature initiative."

Writers opposed to the wheel tax called it regressive, said it would hurt the poor and the elderly most, questioned the need for bus rapid transit — which the fee will help fund — and generally urged leaders to tighten the city’s belt.

Voicing support for the wheel tax was Local 6000 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Wisconsin Public Interest Research GroupRENEW Wisconsin1000 Friends of WisconsinClean Wisconsin and Wisconsin Environment; and Curt Witynski, deputy director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. [In an email, the Sierra Club's John Muir chapter confirmed their support as well.]

 A widespread criticism in the emails was that any additional funds should be directed toward the police, but according to Wisconsin law, revenue from a wheel tax levied by a municipality or county must be directed to "transportation-related purposes." However, the police may see increased funds as a result of the approval, reported Maslar-Donar on Oct. 29:

The fee has been on the table for a few months, and was projected to bring in almost $8 million in 2020. It would fund a variety of transportation projects in the city, which in turn would free up more than $3.5 million from property taxes. The city expects to use that money to fund general items like police and fire.

The tax takes effect Feb. 1, 2020. "Madison will join 20 other municipalities and 12 counties with wheel taxes, but Madison's will be the highest, according to WKOW.

Why no local vote?

Many municipalities charge vehicle registration fees, which often have to be approved by a local vote. Witynski of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities told the State Journal that "the League lobbies the state Legislature about retaining the ability to impose a local vehicle registration without the need to go to a referendum."

Local car tabs repealed in Washington

Washington state municipalities saw their voter-approved "car tabs" annulled on Election Day after state-wide voters approved Initiative 976 on Nov. 5. Seattle, King County, and other entities filed suit on Nov. 13, claiming the initiative is constitutional. They also sought an injunction to prevent the initiative from taking effect on Dec. 8.

Update: sustainability fee

Another type of vehicle registration fee is being considered in Shelby County, Tenn. Mayor Lee Harris proposed a less regressive "sustainability fee" in September that would only apply to the "third and additional" vehicles in multi-car households. Funds would benefit the Memphis Area Transit Authority

Last month he changed the proposal after receiving much public feedback – "only a household's third vehicle would be taxed," reported Richard Brandon for WMC Action News 5 on Oct. 9. "But he may still face an uphill climb," states Brandon in the video. The vote should go before the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in February.

Related in Planetizen:

Monday, November 25, 2019 in Wisconsin State Journal

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