Public Policy Forum Blog

Are the right tools in the toolbox?

As the Public Policy Forum’s 2010-2011 Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellow, I am working on a year-long project examining how local governments raise revenues. An earlier blog post on the project discussed alternatives to financing local governments, including a local sales tax. Overall, 33 of the 45 states that have a sales tax also allow their local governments to levy one. In addition, 43 of the 67 largest cities in the country have a local sales tax.

Under the governor’s proposed 2011-2013 state biennial budget, the city of Milwaukee stands to lose $10.3 million of state shared revenue. Shared revenue currently is a $271.6 million line item in the city budget and represents an unusually large portion when compared to other cities.

In return, the state would give local governments “tools” to help control costs, such as greater flexibility to impose higher health care and pension contributions on public sector employees. Yet, one tool that has been left out of the tool box is the ability for local governments to establish new revenue streams.

Milwaukee has no city sales tax and, by law, it is prohibited from implementing one. If the city could respond to state budget pressures by levying a sales tax, however, what might it look like? Assuming that the city’s tax would bring in revenue proportional to Milwaukee County’s sales tax, a 0.5% tax would generate estimated revenue of $40.3 million. This figure is consistent with economic studies about the city that show a 0.5% sales tax in Milwaukee would raise about $45 million. Therefore, a 0.5% sales tax would more than offset the cut in state shared revenue. In fact, a 0.1% sales tax would almost be enough.

There are several issues, however, that may limit the effectiveness of a local sales tax in Milwaukee. First, it makes sense that cities levying a sales tax should have a large tax base of retail sales. Oklahoma City, which has a 3.875% city sales tax, has more than $6.25 billion of retail sales per year. When measured on the basis of its population of 537,734, Oklahoma City’s retail sales per capita equals $12,057. On the other hand, Milwaukee, with a similar population, has far fewer retail sales. In 2002, Milwaukee saw $3.5 billion of goods sold, which is about $6,094 in retail sales per capita. Moreover, as the chart below indicates, Milwaukee’s retail tax base compares very poorly to similar cities with a city sales tax.

Another big hurdle is that unless a sales tax also is adopted by neighboring cities and towns, a sales tax in the city might put local retailers at a competitive disadvantage by providing even less of an incentive to shop in Milwaukee. For example, if Milwaukee were to impose a 0.5% sales tax to offset a cut in state shared revenue and meet other needs, then goods sold in Milwaukee would be subjected to an overall 6.1% sales tax rate, compared to a 5.6% rate elsewhere in the county. Furthermore, the difference would be even greater when compared to Waukesha County, which has a 5.1% rate. Lastly, the sales tax could disproportionately harm those Milwaukee residents without the means to shop elsewhere.

In return for less state shared revenue, municipal leaders might logically argue that Madison should equip cities with as many tools as possible to fix their budget woes. Were that to occur, however, Milwaukee policymakers would need to carefully consider the tools they use; what’s appropriate for Oklahoma City is not necessarily appropriate for Milwaukee.

The Forum is now accepting applications for the 2011-2012 fellowship year. For more information, go to the Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellowship website. Applications are due April 30, 2011.