Dan Shafer is the founder of The Recombobulation Area, an award-winning, reader-supported weekly column and online publication. Click HERE to subscribe.
On the morning of Tuesday, July 11, 2023, the Milwaukee Common Council held one of its most consequential votes in recent history.
Mayor Cavalier Johnson would call the vote “important and extraordinary, a vote that I think is probably on par with the vote to adopt the city’s charter in 1846.”
That may sound a touch hyperbolic, but the mayor really wasn’t overstating the stakes. Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarippa would also call it “the most important vote of our careers, I think.”
In literal terms, the vote was on the city raising its sales tax by 2%, but really, this was a vote about the future of the city of Milwaukee. Whether Milwaukee would have a future as a city, really. Because if the city did not vote in favor of raising the sales tax, a truly catastrophic outcome would await.
Over a year of hard work, bridge building, relationship repairing, and a vision to preserve and increase City services that Milwaukee’s residents, businesses, commuters, & visitors deserve, resulted in a decades old challenge being solved.
— Cavalier Johnson (@CavalierJohnson) July 11, 2023
The city of Milwaukee has been in a bind. A looming fiscal cliff has threatened the future of public services in the city in a very real way, and while that cliff was pushed back a budget cycle or two by federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, the lack of revenue options to meet rising costs has created an financial imbalance that’s been setting off alarm bells in city government, where potential outcomes range from devastating cuts (at best) to full-on bankruptcy (at worst). It’s a very difficult situation.
The state legislature, controlled by Republicans for more than 12 years, has kept the level of shared revenue returning to the city stagnant—effectively delivering a nine-figure cut to city government, year after year—and now, the city’s annual pension contributions are set to rise significantly, making that difficult budget situation even more challenging balancing act. Robin Vos and Republican leadership in the state legislature has also blocked efforts in budget cycle after budget cycle to give Milwaukee an option to raise its sales tax. This bind the city is in is largely one that was created by the state.
But the city exists downstream from the state, so despite the issue of shared revenue coming into focus at the Capitol in Madison this spring, the city had to prepare for another round of state inaction or gridlock, given the uncertainty ahead. A recent exercise by the Milwaukee Common Council examined what it would mean to see a 25% cut to the city’s budget—a frighteningly realistic outcome in a scenario with no new revenue. Among the possibilities included the elimination of nearly 900 city jobs, closing 10 of 13 library branches, closing Milwaukee Police District 6 and shutting down the new Traffic Safety Unit, and closing more than half of all fire stations.
That would just be the start of it. Without a new revenue solution, the city would be staring at across-the-board cuts. This would impact every aspect of public services in Milwaukee. Things like trash pickup or snow removal or street repair would all get demonstrably and immediately worse.
The recently signed deal on shared revenue—covered extensively here by Marquette professor Phil Rocco, over at The Recombobulation Area—gave the city one narrow, problematic option to address this looming fiscal cliff. That option is to raise the sales tax by 2% and would require a two-thirds vote of the Milwaukee Common Council to do so.
A “no” vote would have meant the lone option the Republican-controlled state legislature had allowed for addressing this would be shot down, and the frightening hypotheticals would turn to a real-world doom spiral. A “yes” vote would mean the city would bring in an estimated $193.6 million next year and a fiscal disaster would be averted. In either scenario, the anti-local control policy measures—stripping the Fire and Police Commission of its power, banning funds for the streetcar and for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, etc.—passed by the state would be in place (for now).
And when that historic, ultra consequential vote arrived on the floor of the Milwaukee Common Council at City Hall, there was uncertainty until the moment votes were cast, but the measure passed with a 12-3 vote in favor of raising the sales tax. This is how the city lives to fight another day.
Today marked a historic day in Milwaukee with the passage of a 2% city sales tax by the Common Council. In taking this action, the Council has protected Milwaukee and its residents from unimaginable cuts to library and public safety services.
— Mayor Cavalier Johnson (@MayorOfMKE) July 11, 2023
This was the smart, responsible decision. It’s hard to get excited about a smart, responsible vote to avert disaster as it might be to position the city to be in a genuine opportunity to thrive, but this is the reality of the moment.
But with this vote out of the way, that paradigm might not be what we’re faced with forever.
Because now, Milwaukee gets to start shedding some of its baggage. This looming fiscal cliff has been the single biggest threat to the city’s future. It was the existential threat, the meteor threatening its very existence.
That’s over now.
It could soon be over at the County, too, if the County Board clears that same two-thirds threshold—and I expect that it will; the City vote always seemed like the more challenging of the two. Perhaps it was even the state legislative vote that got us to that point of this issue being over. A source close to the negotiations texted me after that vote, saying “Massive fucking win for the City/County” to pave the way for new revenue in Milwaukee.
But with Milwaukee’s biggest existential threat being dealt with—and kudos to Mayor Cavalier Johnson and County Executive David Crowley for navigating a tricky political landscape to get us there—we can enter a new chapter for this city, county and region. The old fights are dissolving.
New challenges lie ahead, of course. Living to fight another day means there are battles to come—among them, challenging the anti-local control measures targeting Milwaukee in the state bill through legal pathways that might go differently with the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s soon-to-be new liberal majority. But this is an important moment for Milwaukee. A weight has been lifted from the city’s shoulders.
What’s dominated the conversation these past few months is how to find a solution to avert disaster—not just for Milwaukee but for communities across the state that have been put in dire financial straits because of Republicans’ adherence to an ideology of less government (which really just means worse government). The solution delivered with the shared revenue bill in the state legislature and now through the sales tax at the Common Council is one that will prevent the worst outcomes from happening. What hasn’t been the focus, unfortunately, is how to truly invest in the future of local communities, to invest in the future of Milwaukee to put it in a position to seize a brighter future. We can, and should, be having those conversations.
That’s what we can do now, and we can do it without the constant caveats of “ifs” and “buts” about these looming existential threats of fiscal cliffs and state cuts. It’s far from a perfect solution, but the unglamorous work of responsible governance should be celebrated, at the end of the day.
So, mark the calendar. July 11, 2023. Truly a great day in the city of Milwaukee.
A shift is coming. Excitement awaits. And we cannot wait to see what’s next. This city is capable of so much. It just needs to be given a chance to thrive. After this week’s vote, that chance is that much closer to being a reality.
Exclusive articles, podcasts, and more. Support Milwaukee Record on Patreon.