Janet Bewley

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The leader of Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate said Wednesday that county voters who reject raising local sales taxes “aren’t smart,” a comment she stood by during the panel discussion but later called a “poor choice of words.”

The comment from Sen. Janet Bewley, of Mason, came during a pre-recorded virtual panel of legislative leaders at a Wisconsin Counties Association meeting that was broadcast Wednesday.

The back and forth came as the lawmakers were discussing Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to allow voters in counties t o vote on approving a half-cent sales tax increase. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, both Republicans, flatly rejected the proposal, which is a priority for counties. It would also allow larger cities to seek voter approval for a sales tax hike.

“There is no chance this is going to happen,” Vos said. “It is dead on arrival, never going to happen.”

When Vos asked Democratic Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, of Mason, what it means when voters reject raising taxes, she responded by saying, “Perhaps it means that they’re not smart.”

“Janet, do you want to rethink that?” Vos responded. “I mean, I disagree with people a lot, but I don’t think people who disagree with me are dumb. You just basically said al constituents are dumb who disagree with you.”

Bewley did not retract her comment during the broadcast, but issued a statement later saying she was trying to be sarcastic in response to an earlier Vos comment about voters being smart enough to vote a certain way.

“I hope that we can focus on the serious issues that were discussed during the taping of this roundtable, and not on my failed attempt at sarcasm, and poor choice of words,” Bewley said. “Lives and livelihoods are at stake and we have to do better than play political ‘gotcha’ games.”

Vos had praised the decision in Walworth County to use additional sales tax revenue to lower property taxes, but he said most counties are looking for additional spending, not tax cuts. The Evers proposal would allow counties to divert more sales tax money to lessen property taxes, but it doesn’t require that to happen.

Bewley had said during the broadcast that many counties felt “stymied” by trying to provide mandated services without the funding to do it. She specifically cited communities in Ashland County that can’t afford ambulance services.

“What I should have said, is that the voters of Walworth County are not smarter than the voters in my district, and that there’s no good way to deal with a system that forces people to go to referendum in order to pay for essential services, such as having an ambulance come when you call for help,” Bewley said in her statement.

On other topics, Republicans said they could find areas of agreement with Evers, particularly his call to increase funding for rural broadband access. They did not say if they would support spending $200 million on it as Evers has called.

Vos also said he would be open to looking at funding body cameras for police departments. Vos said he hoped to act on recommendations from his racial justice task force, and take up election-related bills, this spring.

However, there is so much in Evers’ budget that Republicans disagree with — like partially repealing the Act 10 collective bargaining law and legalizing recreational marijuana — that the plan is to scrap his proposal entirely and start building the next budget based off the current one. That is the same approach Republicans took last time and they ultimately passed a budget that hit many of Evers’ priorities and he signed it into law.