FILE - Wisconsin State Capitol

The dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

Leaders in Milwaukee County are selling their plan for a sales tax increase in the county as a way to cash-in on visitors to Milwaukee. 

Democratic leaders, including County Executive Chris Abele and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, on Monday made the pitch to raise the county's sales tax from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent. That would raise the total sales tax in Milwaukee County to 6.5 percent. 

Abele said if Milwaukee County doesn't increase taxes, there will be cuts to county services and possible layoffs. 

"One thing we all agree on is that we need a solution," Abele told reporters on Monday. "We need a solution because if we don't get one, you will see continued cuts in the service that we provide. Both at the county and local level."

Abele said the sales tax increase would generate $160 million in its first year. 

But there is a big 'if' that needs to be attached to the proposal. 

Lawmakers in Madison have to give Milwaukee County leaders permission to put the sales tax question on the ballot. 

And the Republicans who run the legislature aren't sure they will do that. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos' office on Monday said the speaker will "discuss the proposal" with Republican lawmakers. But his spokeswoman also said the sales tax increase will be a "tough sell." 

Wuskesha County Republican Dale Kooyenga, whose district is on the border with Milwaukee County, made that point Monday. 

“I strongly believe Wisconsin’s overall tax burden is already too high," Kooyenga said in a statement. "I will continue to listen to my constituents and to the parties that have worked on the proposal to see if there are opportunities to realize a win-win scenario for the Milwaukee area and all state taxpayers.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is trying to frame the sales tax increase in as soft a light as possible for Republicans in Madison. He said Milwaukee County is not asking for more state money. 

"Will you allow us to ask our residents, not to ask you for more money, but to ask out residents whether we can tax ourselves and those who visit Milwaukee," Barrett said Monday. 

Barrett, Abele, and other Democrats want to get the tax hike question on the spring ballot. That would coincide with a state Supreme Court race. And would mean the tax increase could go into effect before the Democratic National Convention comes to town in the summer of 2020.  

Staff Writer

An industry veteran with two decades of experience in media, Benjamin Yount reports on Illinois and Wisconsin statewide issues for The Center Square.