June 23, 2009 11:15 AM
The legislature is in the final days (we all hope) of its budget deliberations, and it looks like they will authorize the creation of a Dane County Regional Transit Authority. Since Governor Jim Doyle included an RTA in his original budget, it seems likely that he will approve it once the budget hits his desk.
It's important to realize that this is only the first step. Next the RTA would have to be formed by a vote of the Dane County Board. After that, up to a .5 cent sales tax could be created to fund mass transit and road projects, but only after approval by the voters in a referendum. The Assembly had called for a nonbinding referendum while the Senate version would require that the referendum be binding.
I'm happy to support the binding referendum language in the Senate bill. After all, County Executive Kathleen Falk and I had called for a referendum two years ago. We realize that whether or not it's officially binding, it would be all but impossible to go forward with the sales tax without a positive vote.
Some transit advocates have argued that it's not fair to require a public vote on transit projects but not on road projects. I agree with them, but it's important to keep in mind that the vote here will not be on any particular form of transportation but on imposing a new tax.
As a general rule, I don't like referenda. I believe my City Council colleagues and I get elected to study issues, gather facts and bring to bear our best judgment, sometimes even when those facts and judgment don't lead us to a popular conclusion. But in rare and very significant cases, it seems to me that going directly to the public is the right thing to do. In this case, with a new tax on the table, it seems to me that a referendum is in order, and we should be bound by its results.