Milwaukee Democrats Rep. David Crowley, left, and Sen. Chris Larson are running for Milwaukee County executive and will face each other in the polls on April 7. Incumbent County Executive Chris Abele is not seeking re-election. (Photos via the Crowley and Larson campaigns)
Milwaukee Democrats Rep. David Crowley, left, and Sen. Chris Larson are running for Milwaukee County executive and will face each other in the polls on April 7. Incumbent County Executive Chris Abele is not seeking re-election. (Photos via the Crowley and Larson campaigns)

Legislature turns down sales-tax hike request to eliminate county’s $40 million budget deficit. Next county executive to decide what’s next.

It’s clear that Milwaukee County’s next executive will need to work with Republicans in the Legislature if they have any hope of closing the county’s long-running budget deficit.

The county, home to about 950,000 residents, is expected to face a $40 million budget deficit next year. A proposed 1 percent sales-tax increase put to a binding referendum would have brought in $160 million annually, eliminating the deficit and allowing property tax relief. But for the county to put the referendum on the ballot next month, it would have needed a nod from the Legislature.

In the latest snub to Milwaukee, state Republicans never even voted this session on a bill to allow the county to pose the referendum question. 

The next county executive — whether it is Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, or Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee — will have to work with Republicans to find a solution. The two candidates for Milwaukee County executive fielded questions during an hourlong debate Wednesday night hosted by WISN-TV. Incumbent County Executive Chris Abele is not seeking re-election, leaving the seat up for grabs.

“When I think about what we’re going to need for Milwaukee County, it’s going to be a relationship with Speaker (Robin) Vos, who’s still going to be there,” Crowley said. 

Larson said he would take a stand.

“I’m looking to be a fighter for all of Milwaukee County,” he said. “I’m going to advocate for us, especially when we’re getting beat up.”

For his part, Vos, R-Rochester, is receptive to discussions on the sales-tax referendum, his spokeswoman told Milwaukee Magazine last month. 

There could be room for real negotiations after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, makes his likely ascension from state to federal government this November. Fitzgerald flatly told the magazine that the sales-tax referendum bill was out of the question.

Because the tax increase will not happen for the foreseeable future, debate host Adrienne Pedersen pointed out there will almost assuredly be cuts during the next county budget cycle. 

Neither Larson nor Crowley would commit to specific cuts, other than Larson saying he would slash his pay by $10,000 should he win the election. Crowley, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of the 2020 Census for receiving federal funds and said he would create a new office that specifically goes after new state and federal grants.

Both pledged that they would not allow the sale of any of Milwaukee County’s 150-plus public parks to make up for any budget shortfalls.

Crowley and Larson will square off for the Milwaukee County Executive seat on April 7.