The governor of Wisconsin has signed a large-scale bill that contains a controversial provision blocking the ability of local governments to put non-binding advisory questions on the ballot—a policy that’s been used over the years to demonstrate widespread public support for marijuana legalization.
Gov. Tony Evers (D) gave final approval to the legislation—which is principally focused on revenue sharing and increasing funding for localities—on Tuesday, without explicitly mentioning the advisory question issue.
The local referenda have been used to take the temperature of voters on a number of issues, including those championed by Democrats like cannabis legalization and abortion rights that could theoretically boost turnout in the state, where the legislature is controlled by Republicans.
GOP legislators inserted a number of provisions into the broader legislation that are opposed by Democratic members, but the governor ultimately signed the bill into law and described it as a “historic” development that will empower localities to raise their sales tax rates to avoid bankruptcy, for example.
Democrats have criticized the advisory question elimination, however. And during last year’s election alone, voters in three counties and five municipalities approved referenda voicing support for cannabis legalization, which is a reform that’s also backed by the governor but has consistently stalled under GOP leadership in Madison.
“Local governments deserve adequate funding from the state, without unnecessary strings attached,” Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D) told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.
“I firmly believe that local leaders best understand the unique needs of their communities, and it was shortsighted for Republican legislators in the Capitol to attach mandates to this vital funding, claiming to know what’s best for every community,” Agard, who also spoke with Marijuana Moment last month about the challenges of advancing cannabis reform amid GOP opposition, said. “While I remain vehemently opposed to the policy strings attached, I know that the local funding increases associated with this package are long overdue for our local units of government.”
The text of the advisory question provision in the bill states that county boards “may conduct a countywide referendum
for advisory purposes or for the purpose of ratifying or validating a resolution adopted or ordinance enacted by the board contingent upon approval in the referendum.”
The county boards “may not conduct a referendum for advisory purposes, except as provided under s. 66.0305 (6) or for an advisory referendum regarding capital expenditures proposed to be funded by the county property tax levy,” it says.
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Meanwhile, the Republican speaker of the Assembly said last week that his caucus plans to introduce a medical marijuana bill as early as this summer. But he emphasized that it will be unlike any existing medical cannabis law in the country, strongly signaling that it will be significantly restrictive.
Democratic lawmakers have been skeptical about the reported efforts by GOP colleagues to advance medical cannabis reform in the state. Evers and Agard have been among those who’ve been pushing for comprehensive legalization, but so far cannabis issues have failed to advance in the conservative legislature.
The governor said in January that he does believe Republicans will introduce medical cannabis legislation this session, and he committed to signing it into law, so long as it’s not “flawed” with too many limitations.
The governor and the GOP majority have had a strained relationship on this issue. Leadership has criticized Evers for putting adult-use legalization in recent budget requests, with the Assembly speaker warning this year that including the broad reform could jeopardize talks on more modest medical marijuana legislation.
He did it anyways—and, at a joint committee hearing last month, Republicans responded in kind, stripping both recreational and medical cannabis language from the budget proposal, along with hundreds of other policy items.
At the Senate minority leader’s request, the state’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) carried out a study that was released in March showing that Wisconsin residents purchased more than $121 million worth of marijuana from Illinois retailers in 2022, contributing about $36 million in tax revenue to the state.
A separate report published by Wisconsin Policy Forum in February found that 50 percent of adults 21 and older in the state live within 75 minutes of an out-of-state cannabis retailer, such as in Illinois or Michigan. That percentage stands to increase when Minnesota’s market eventually comes online.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.