Gov. Tony Evers drew applause several days ago from small- and large-city mayors and leaders of other Wisconsin municipalities when he announced he will include language to close the so-called "dark-store loophole" in his first budget proposal to the Legislature.
The loophole has been a major thorn in the side of Wisconsin local governments that are trying to balance their own budgets. The bottom line is that local governments have to assess the big stores for property tax purposes as if they were vacant, or "dark." When local assessors insisted that an open, bustling store has more value than an empty one, the big retailers with their high-powered lawyers and unlimited resources filed suit and because of the way the tax law is written, the judge sided with them.
That opened the gates for the big-box stores to get huge reductions in their property tax bills. Already 60 municipalities have been forced to provide big tax refunds to the likes of Walmart, Target and dozens of others. In Monona alone, Walmart, with that huge superstore along the South Beltline, has sued to reduce its property tax bill by $433,000.
So guess who's now going to have to dig deeper to fund Monona government — its schools and other services? The average homeowner, of course, and the dozens of mom and pop stores along Monona Drive and elsewhere in the city.
Whether the Republican-controlled Legislature will go along with Evers' language changes that would eliminate the loophole is anyone's guess. Big-business interests will fight the change and, naturally, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce will spend big lobbying bucks to fight it too.
All one needs to do is check the campaign finance files compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to determine where WMC's millions in campaign funding go. Through some convoluted reasoning, the WMC insists that the big stores are already paying more than their fair share of the local property tax burden.
But there's evidence that taxpaying citizens are starting to rebel against this never-ending shifting of the tax burden onto working people and businesses.
In an unheard-of decision, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, school district stood up to oil giant Exxon Mobil and denied them several million dollars in yet more tax breaks. By a 4-3 vote, the board decided enough was enough. Louisiana schools are among the worst in the country; their buildings are in disrepair and the citizens simply can't take on more taxes to finance the fixes.
The business community in Baton Rouge was outraged. Big oil, after all, has provided jobs seemingly forever and the state's Association of Business and Industry accused the school board of "radicalism" and said it's time the board "cool its jets."
But, so far, the board's hanging tough. The need for tax dollars for the schools alone is just too great.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin taxpayers have already made their voices heard. In a series of advisory referendums last fall, dozens of municipalities overwhelmingly voted to close the loophole. Ninety percent of the voters in Dane County voted yes.
Tony Evers has listened. Question is, have the others?
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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