Democratic leader calls voters 'not smart' if they oppose tax increases

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The top Democratic leader of the State Senate said voters are ‘not smart’ if they don’t support initiatives to increase taxes, during a panel discussion with legislative leaders. 

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason) made the comments when she was asked about Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to allow counties and cities the ability to raise their local sales tax during a roundtable discussion hosted by the Wisconsin Counties Association. 

When Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Bewley were debating the topic, Bewley spoke about the difficulties Ashland County is having when trying to find funds to pay for ambulance services.

Vos asked her whether or not the county raised property taxes to help, but Bewley said they didn’t because voters would reject the idea. 

“The voters will turn it down and then they’ll be in the same position they are in right now,” she said.

Vos then asked, “if the voters turn it down, doesn’t that mean they don’t support what you're advocating for?”

“No, perhaps that means that they’re not smart, you know?” said Bewley. “Sometimes we have to do things that allow them the ability.”

The Speaker then followed up with those comments, “Janet, do you want to rethink that? I mean I disagree a lot with people but I don’t think people who disagree with me are dumb?”

Bewley did not backtrack her statement but later sent a statement calling her comments a “failed attempt at sarcasm and poor choice of words.” 

“What I should have said, is that the voters of Walworth County are not smarter than the voters in my district, and that there’s no good way to deal with a system that forces people to go to referendum in order to pay for essential services,” said Bewley.

The Wisconsin Counties Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities are supportive of raising local sales taxes as they’ve noted reliance on property taxes as a way to boost revenues means there are few options to fund other services.  

The extra dollars could result in more direct local investments towards roads, public safety, and public health among other things.

Under Evers' proposal, counties and cities with populations over 30,000 would have the ability to raise their local sales tax up to 6.5%, if voters approve through a referendum. 

Wisconsin currently has the lowest sales tax in the Midwest at 5%.

Tax Increases “Dead on Arrival”

The push to allow communities to boost their sales tax is unlikely to go anywhere after GOP leaders said they widely opposed the tax increases. 

"Zero, there is no chance this is going to happen, dead on arrival,” Vos said during the WCA panel. 

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu also echoed the same messaging, saying it doesn’t think there’s a need for one.

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