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Wedge Issues Podcast 2018 Midterm Election (copy)

Maggie Gau, Gov. Tony Evers' chief of staff.

Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget proposal could seek to curtail a controversial process by which big-box retail stores lower their property tax bills, Evers’ chief aide said Tuesday.

Evers said during the campaign that he wants to curtail the so-called “dark store loophole,” as it’s dubbed by critics. But Tuesday he gave an indication it could be part of his plan for the state’s next two-year budget, due in February or March.

“I think that you’ll be seeing more from us on this issue,” said Maggie Gau, Evers’ chief of staff — adding that it “maybe” could be a budget item. The comments came as Gau was publicly interviewed during a lunch event.

There were bipartisan efforts during the last legislative session to address the dark store issue. But the state’s chamber of commerce, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, opposed the measure and Republican legislative leaders did not bring it to a vote.

Owners of big-box retail buildings have used the dark store process to challenge their property tax assessments by contending their property values should be linked to the value of other large retail stores that are vacant, or “dark.”

Critics of the practice say it unfairly shifts the property tax burden from large retailers to homeowners, a contention its proponents dispute.

Speaking to reporters after the event, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, floated the possibility of a budget deal with Evers that pairs his plan to cut income taxes for the middle class by 10 percent with a revenue boost for the state’s transportation network. The latter likely would come from increasing gas taxes, vehicle registration fees or collecting highway tolls.

But Nygren appeared to walk back those remarks in a statement issued hours later, contending “in no way did I offer or suggest that the middle-class income tax cut should be used as an offset for transportation revenues.” The statement noted that Assembly Republicans had not taken a position on the matter.

Nygren’s office could not be reached for comment late Tuesday to clarify how his statement squares with what he told reporters earlier in the day. Initially, Nygren said former Gov. Scott Walker had been open to a gas tax or other revenue infusion for transportation if it were offset by a corresponding tax decrease elsewhere.

Coupling a transportation revenue boost with a middle-class income-tax cut such as Evers proposed would match that framework, and likely would be backed by Assembly Republicans, Nygren had said.

“It could be an offset to meet the previous pledge that Gov. Walker made, that Republicans would be supportive of,” Nygren said.

Evers wants to offset revenue lost to the middle-class income-tax cut by capping a tax break for large manufacturers and farmers.

Assembly Republicans released a plan earlier this month that would enact a similar tax cut and pay for it on a onetime basis through state reserve funds.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.