The Sauk County Board’s “referendum train” — as some supervisors have dubbed it — is running full steam ahead, although one freight car got left at the station Tuesday night.
During its monthly meeting, the board voted 17-12 to place an advisory referendum on county ballots this November involving the influence of money in politics and the constitutional rights of corporations.
Later in the evening, the board turned down another non-binding ballot question, voting 26-3 to refer back to committee a proposed referendum on the so-called “dark store” tax loophole.
The referendum that was approved will ask whether voters would support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating that only human beings — not corporations, unions, or other artificial entities — have constitutional rights.
A second part of the referendum will ask whether voters favor a constitutional amendment that says “Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting speech.” The referendum is a reaction to controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
It’s the second ballot initiative the board has approved for the November election. Last month, supervisors voted 21-10 to run a countywide advisory referendum on non-partisan redistricting reform.
A state law allowing county boards to run such referendums does not specifically limit their subject matter, and Wisconsin counties have run ballot questions on state and national issues. Still, some local supervisors said they believe the county board should stay out of those matters.
“When I came here, I was under the impression that this was a non-partisan board, and clearly that is not the case,” Supervisor Brandon Lohr of Prairie du Sac said. “However, we should not be trying to execute this stuff. This is beyond our scope.”
Critics of the proposal said the board has opened up Pandora’s box, and now must consider advisory referendums on any number of national and state issues voters care about.
Board Chairman Peter Vedro of Baraboo said he thinks the threshold for advisory referendums should be issues involving core democratic principles, including access to the ballot box and fair taxation. He said he plans to propose another referendum involving voter suppression.
“Two-hundred thousand voters in Wisconsin were deprived of their right to vote because of the laws that were put into place by this Legislature,” Vedro said, citing a progressive group’s study of Voter ID laws. “Donald Trump won the presidency in Wisconsin by 22,000 votes. There is something wrong in the state of Wisconsin, and it is appropriate for the people to speak out from whatever small voice they have.”
Conservative supervisors have offered up a counter to what they say are progressive-leaning referendum questions proposed by Vedro, a one-time Democratic candidate for the state Assembly.
Supervisor Tim McCumber of Merrimac, a prominent local Republican, has proposed a referendum asking whether voters would support a constitutional amendment protecting the rights of the unborn. It also would ask whether lawmakers should prohibit funding to organizations “suspected of illegally selling baby parts.”
That referendum is slated to go before the board’s Executive and Legislative Committee next month.
Dark store loophole
Supervisors voted to send the “dark store” tax loophole referendum back to committee after critics said it was unnecessary and may actually hurt efforts to change the law.
The ballot question would have asked voters whether the state Legislature should close a loophole that allows large retailers like Menards and Walmart to lower their property tax bills, shifting the burden to homeowners and small businesses.
The big box stores use the loophole — which emerged due to a 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision — to contest property tax assessments, ensuring their facilities are valued similar to vacant, or “dark,” buildings.
A bipartisan proposal introduced in the Legislature last year would have closed the loophole, but the business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce opposed it and Republican leaders did not allow a vote.
Supervisor Marty Krueger of Reedsburg said he believes there already is much political will to change the law, so a local referendum advising lawmakers is unnecessary. He also said many voters will not understand what the referendum is about, and that a negative result may hurt the cause.