State Sen. Chris Larson tonight said his call for a 1 percent sales tax would pull revenue from those living outside Milwaukee County to help pay for public transit, aging parks and a new Bucks arena.
Milwaukee County Chris Abele denounced the idea as "regressive" and a burden on already struggling families.
The two clashed on several matters during a debate at Marquette University Law School moderated by WISN's Mike Gousha. Larson, 35, hopes to oust Abele, 49, as county exec on April 5.
Larson defended his sales tax proposal by saying that necessities, such as food, rent, and medicine are already tax-exempt.
"The answer is getting a dedicated funding source," Larson said. "In Wisconsin, we have so many things that are exempt from sales tax." He said most of the things families spend money on wouldn't be affected, "yet at the same time, you would stand to benefit the most by having access to expanded transit and quality parks."
Abele countered that the thousands of MPS families that have to buy school supplies and clothing would still be hit hard.
"You don't do it by making more expensive the things they have to buy," Abele said.
Abele added the Republican majorities in the state Legislature would never sign off on allowing the county to raise the sales tax as Larson is proposing.
"There is absolutely a chance to be able to do this," Larson replied. "If you need to bind it to a referendum, give (counties) that authority. They can sell it to the people."
But Abele offered few details on how he would produce sufficient revenue instead of a sales tax, other than to say he is "drawing down county debt" to sufficiently offset transit and park costs.
Larson blasted Abele for agreeing to use county taxpayer money to help pay for a new Bucks arena and accused Abele of deliberately avoiding public input in the decision.
"You negotiated the deal single-handedly," Larson said.
But Abele said his actions "had nothing to do a stadium for billionaires; it had to do with an empty part of downtown. Park East has been sitting there for 15 years, not that people didn't try. Suddenly we're talking potentially a billion dollars of investment. Since that deal was signed, we've had five projects in the past five months ... that was not happening before. This is jobs we've never had."
Abele rebuked Larson by saying, "You voted on it. I don't get to. All we can do is suggest a deal."
Larson repeatedly linked Abele to Gov. Scott Walker, who was Milwaukee County exec for eight years before he was elected governor in 2010. On nearly every topic, Larson accused Abele of "Walker-style gimmicks" and of "power grabs."
"I don't think continuing the same policies of Scott Walker is a flag to put down and say that that's a success," Larson said.
Afterward, Abele told reporters he has actively supported everyone who has run against Walker, from Tom Barrett to Mary Burke to Walker's first opponent for county exec. Abele added he supports issues that Walker opposes, such as abortion rights and gay rights. His latest TV ad seeks to link Larson and Walker.
"I'm curious which part of that he thinks is like Scott Walker," Abele said. He added, "None of this prevents me from working with Scott Walker" or getting along with Republicans.
Both candidates agreed that the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes need to be saved. "The Domes are near and dear to my heart," Larson said.
But Abele hinted that perhaps the Domes could be "restructured" into something new and different that would generate more visitors and revenue, much as the Domes did when they replaced the original Victorian conservatory at Mitchell Park.
In one exchange during which the candidates were asked about how they could help the plight of blacks in Milwaukee, the audience audibly reacted when Larson said he "doesn't get along" with Dem state Sen. Lena Taylor, of Milwaukee, who is African American. "She supported my opponent, she continues to support my opponents," he said. Abele said it "should be about the public."