How many times can we propose to tax poor families and pretend that there will be no consequences?
The most recent example is the $60 wheel tax Milwaukee County Executive Chris Able recommended in his 2017 county budget. The proposed wheel tax is on top of the $20-wheel tax already imposed by the city of Milwaukee. With the state, county and city vehicle registration fees, a city of Milwaukee resident will pay a whopping $155.00 per year to register each vehicle owned. That’s a 63% jump in fees. This may not seem like a lot of money to some, but to a single mom struggling to keep her family together as she works two part-time jobs, a 63% increase in anything is a big deal. In the city of Milwaukee, 81% of the households own a car; a number which obviously includes tens of thousands of low income families.
To be fair, the County Exec is recommending that about one-third of the expected vehicle fee revenue will be used to improve transit service. And, he vows to seek state legislation that will allow more flexibility in how the fee is assessed which might reduce the cost to low-income families. This promise to seek a remedy would be more meaningful if the proposed wheel tax was delayed until the low-income family safeguards were in place. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It appears that the full revenue for the tax is built into the budget. And so, the fact remains that a low-income car owner living in the city of Milwaukee will be taxed significantly more to register a vehicle than any other car owner in Wisconsin. In return, other low-income Milwaukee residents may see improved bus services and roads and bridges will be repaired.
I get it, the county is in a bind. State and federal share of roads and transit revenues continue to decline and our transit system along with our street, bridges and highway infrastructure is wearing out. But, we can’t continue to pretend that it is OK to stress already frayed family budgets and expect that people will somehow figure out how to survive.
Here’s a suggestion: County Executive Able spend his political capital to resurrect a Regional Transit Authority in southeastern Wisconsin and stabilize the county transit system based on a vision of the region that guarantees long term self-sufficiency and growth. I believe this is a better use of the County Executives political chits than the promise to go to the legislature in order to jerry-rig a short term solution to reduce the burden of the exorbitant wheel tax on low-income families.
Policy makers cannot continue to expect low-income residents to self-fund a ladder out of poverty or to pay for a crumbling transportation infrastructure. A wheel tax that places undue burden on city of Milwaukee low-income families and turns Milwaukee into a tax island is not sustainable and is not just. Our future rests on our ability to envision a region where we have shared prosperity, shared responsibility and where we see ourselves as one community. A $60-wheel tax doesn’t get us there.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.