Tax Shell Game in Milwaukee

The Milwaukee County Transit System has budget problems, as described in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story Transit system at ‘critical point’: Transit funding options skidding into pressures on tax dollars. Setting the dire scene:

It is a route that never seems to change.

Every weekday, more than 150,000 times a day, someone boards a Milwaukee County Transit System bus to reach a job, a class, a store, a doctor or a home.

And every year, for six years straight, the Milwaukee County Board has cut bus service, raised fares or both.

With one of every 12 county residents riding a bus to work or school, transit supporters believe the county must find a new route to keep the buses and the local economy driving forward.

As a matter of fact, while I was in college, I rode the white and green limousine several times a day as I shuttled between home, work, school, work again or home, school, work, school again. So I got plenty of benefit from the robust transit system, and any cuts would have inconvenienced me.

So I’m not arguing that cuts wouldn’t hurt or adversely affect a number of people. But the leaders and their cheerleaders in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel face finitude with great pluck, as they perhaps would prefer to merely posit infinity and act accordingly. When referring to tax money, of course:

But that new route could lead into the politically dangerous neighborhood of new taxes. The transit system is one of the few its size that compete with other agencies for limited property tax dollars.

Limited property tax dollars are a bad thing in this scenario, and special interests–and understand, every government body and agency is its own special interest when it comes to feeding at the public trough. But since property tax dollars are limited, those official special interests have other solutions in mind:

And long before the recent push to create a sales tax for parks, recreation and cultural programs, transit backers were seeking a new revenue source to wean the bus system off the property tax levy.

So instead of the trough marked property tax dollars, they want to feed a little from the trough marked sales tax. Especially given this horror:

Further down the road, officials also are concerned about exhausting federal funding that now helps balance the transit budget. From 1993 to 1998, the federal government gave the transit system more money than it needed to buy buses, building up a reserve of more than $30 million. Starting in 1998, federal rules allowed the transit system to use that money for major maintenance, and officials started to gradually use up the reserve.

The buffet pan marked federal dollars is running dry.

Instead of making hard decisions, the mass transit special interest has thoughts on levying automobile fees, sales taxes, and all sorts of other creative mechanisms for increasing the overall tax burden on the people upon whom it serves itself.

By creating various and sundry unelected Authorities and Boards and Committees with their own focuses and their own ability to request or raise taxes, our elected officials get to abstract and insulate themselves from these actions and can avoid making the hard choices that balance the needs of some of the population. Instead, they can churn new programs, boards, and authorities to do the hard work for them, without direct accountability to the voters, and every time some special governmental interest, they’ll have a new, creative revenue source and the taxpayer to tap out.

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