Ronald Reagan once said, "Government always finds a
need for whatever money it gets." Wisconsin has a
habit of proving that maxim correct.
In Washington County last week, the County Board
approved an additional $771,000 to the project to remodel
the sheriff’s dispatch center and a few other offices.
This brings the total for the project to $4.9 million.
The reasons for the increase in spending are seemingly
reasonable. The biggest reason for the unexpected increase
is that the elevator needs to be moved to the outside of
The problem is that most of the project is to be funded
with revenues from the county sales tax.
You remember the county sales tax, don’t you? It was
created in Washington County several years ago to fund a
few very dire and very specific capital projects for the
county. Those projects have long since been completed, but
the sales tax lives on. The County Board kept the tax
alive to fund Cabela’s welfare check, and now uses it as
a slush fund to pay for whatever tickles their fancy.
The problem isn’t that the Sheriff’s building
project needed more money. The problem is that the County
Board was not forced to make a choice based on the
priorities of the county because they have a slush fund in
the form of the sales tax. The sales tax continues to be
levied just waiting for some politician to find an excuse
to spend it.
Another "temporary" tax that most of
Southeast Wisconsin pays, including Washington County, is
the 0.1 percent sales tax to pay for Miller Park. This tax
was put into place to fund the building of Miller Park. In
theory, it is set to go away in a few years after the
ballpark is paid for, but don’t count on it.
Politicians all over Southeast Wisconsin are eyeing the
Miller Park tax for their own purposes. As recently as a
few weeks ago, Senator Lena Taylor was talking about
continuing the tax indefinitely and using the proceeds to
support the Milwaukee County Park System. The thought of
letting such a rich source of revenue revert to the
taxpayers is apparently repulsive to some.
Just last week, Milwaukee Mayor Barrett asked the
Legislature to give the municipalities the 9-1-1 fee on
cellular phones. This was a fee created a few years ago to
fund the systems that would allow 911 dispatch centers to
triangulate the location of cell phone users who call
9-1-1 in an emergency. The fee started out at 83 cents a
month for every cell phone in the state. It peaked at 91
cents per month in 2006, and is currently at 43 cents per
month. The fee is set to expire completely on Nov. 30 of
Mayor Barrett has another idea. He wants the state to
give control of the fee to the municipalities for use in
funding police and fire departments. His argument is that
it makes sense to create a fee that was intended to
upgrade 911 technologies to fund the services that respond
to 911 calls. Unfortunately, that is not why the fee was
created, nor was that the reasoning that was presented to
the taxpayers’ representatives in the Legislature when
they enacted the fee.
Not only does Mayor Barrett want to keep the fee for
his own city’s use, he wants to increase it
dramatically. He wants to increase the fee to as much as
$1 per month in 2009 and up to $1.50 per month in
subsequent years. That represents over a 300 percent
increase over its current level.
All three of these cases merely prove Ronald Reagan’s
point. Once the people decide to create a new revenue
stream for government, there will be those within
government who will seek to perpetuate that revenue
stream. This is true irrespective of any conditions,
limitations, time limits, or any other thresholds that the
people may put on that revenue stream. The temptation is
too great for politicians to resist.
The only viable solution is very simple. No matter what
the reasoning, the taxpayers should avoid creating any new
revenue streams for government. If some politician wants
to spend money on something, the least that the taxpayers
should expect is for that politician to find an existing
revenue stream and prioritize accordingly. After all, for
every new program worthy of funding, there are at least
five existing programs that should have been killed years