MADISON – The top Democrat in the state Senate said during an online forum Wednesday that voters in her northern Wisconsin district will likely oppose raising their taxes because they’re “not smart.”
Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley of Mason declined to retract the statement during the Wisconsin Counties Association event when a Republican asked her whether it was wise to describe her opponents as dumb.
Later, she issued a statement expressing regret and saying she meant the comment about voters’ intelligence sarcastically.
Bewley made the comment as she argued for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to allow counties and some municipalities to raise the sales tax to fund their operations. She said funding problems are clear in Ashland County, where she said four communities can’t find ambulance providers that they can afford.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester asked whether officials had sought to raise property taxes to address the issue. Bewley said they hadn’t yet, adding that voters would likely reject the idea if it were presented to them.
“So If the voters turn it down, doesn’t that mean they don’t support what you’re advocating for?” Vos asked.
Bewley responded: “Perhaps that means that they’re not smart, you know?
If they can’t provide it, don’t we have some collective responsibility to help those communities that depend on volunteer emergency services?”
Vos questioned her sentiment.
“Janet, do you want to rethink that?” he asked. “I mean, I disagree with people a lot, but I don’t think people who disagree with me are dumb. You’re basically saying your constituents who disagree with you are dumb.”
Bewley didn’t pull back her statement, saying she was reacting to his praise earlier in the forum of Walworth County’s decision to put all of its sales tax revenue toward property tax relief.
“The reference to Walworth County didn’t go over real well with me,” she said.
The hourlong forum was recorded last week but was not made public until Wednesday, when it was played at a counties association event.
After it was played, Bewley issued a statement saying she hadn’t used the right words.
“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,” she said in her statement.
“It has nothing to do with being smart, it has everything to with the Republican-controlled Legislature starving local governments of the resources they need to protect their communities.”
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.