No one likes to pay taxes. And the way things are going in Wisconsin, eventually maybe no one will — at least no one with an industry group, lobbyist or sympathetic state legislator going to bat for them.
Earlier this month I wrote about a bill introduced by a pair of Democratic Madison lawmakers to satisfy the nonprofit Bartell Theatre’s desire to avoid paying property taxes.
Last week, the Madison City Council voted to formally oppose a bill by a group of mostly Republican lawmakers that would free television and radio broadcasters from having to pay certain sales taxes and personal property taxes on equipment such as transmission towers.
The bills are just the latest twists in a 60-year tax-shifting trend: In the 1950s, about half of all property taxes in Wisconsin were paid by homeowners, according to Todd Berry, president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. The other half were paid by businesses, farms, industry and other nonresidential property owners.
Today, that split is about 70-30.
Assembly Bill 5 is essentially a gift to the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, which argues that lessening their members’ tax burden will help them survive in a tough market, spur economic development and level the playing field between them and newspapers, which have their own tax breaks.
The bill’s author and primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch of Oconomowoc, says that broadcasters have poured lots of money into their operations to make them compatible with an increasingly digital world, and he lauds the “distinctive link” between the stations and the communities they serve.
Co-sponsor Rep. Brett Hulsey, a liberal Madison Democrat not usually given to signing on to Republican bills, is more blunt.
“I co-sponsored this bill because employers from the TV and radio stations in my district asked me to,” he said. “There are four TV stations and 13 radio stations, and they employ over 200 people in the district.”
This is typical of the approach legislators take to taxes, according to Berry. “Somebody will come to them and ask them to carve out some teeny exemption.”
And over time, they add up.
Berry and Madison assessor Mark Hanson said tax exemptions for manufacturing equipment and livestock, among other things, and a change in the way farm property is valued have helped slowly whittle away at the non-residential part of the tax base.
Berry estimated that about 8 points of the 20-point shift in the property tax burden is due to legislative action, with the rest due to historical declines in manufacturing and agriculture, and the pre-2008 housing boom.
There’s not much state lawmakers can do about those latter impacts, but lawmakers are, in theory at least, capable of putting an end to endless exemptions or tossing out an exemption-riddled tax altogether in favor of some other source of revenue.
Either could be fairer to average homeowners who, lacking their own interest group, quietly get nickel-and-dimed to death.