Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Taxes (page 1 of 2)

Mark Pocan’s Smoke Screen: His pieties about protecting middle class families are a cover for hiking taxes on the poor

On June 15, Mark Pocan was on a roll. He stood on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly delivering a sarcastic stem-winder, criticizing the new state budget so dramatically that it sounded as if he were auditioning for a community theater production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Pocan, who seems destined to inherit Tammy Baldwin’s safely Democratic congressional seat, ripped the Republican-authored budget for its use of fund raids, debt restructuring and fee increases (mostly UW tuition) to balance the budget.

Of course, this was pure calumny, as the last Democratic budget — authored with Pocan as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee — could be characterized only by those exact gimmicks.

Pocan thundered that the budget was an “attack on the middle-class families of Wisconsin.” In a particularly obnoxious critique of the GOP, Pocan said Gov. Scott Walker’s budget “increased property taxes” by $475 million. Of course the state doesn’t “increase” property taxes — it merely limits how much local governments can increase property taxes.

Apparently Pocan lost the memo that demonstrated that using those same numbers, the Pocan-authored budget of 2009 “raised” property taxes by $1.49 billion — more than three times Walker’s alleged increase.

Pocan finished with the most disingenuous talking point: Republicans were going after the middle class by scaling back the homestead and earned-income tax credits by $69.8 million. Surely, Democrats would never support taxes that harm the middle class!

In fact, Democrats prefer taxes that harm the poor.

Exactly 734 days earlier, Pocan stood on the Assembly floor arguing for a budget he authored that increased the cigarette tax by 75 cents per pack. This hike occurred directly on the heels of a $1 per pack tax increase that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law just two years earlier.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 54% of all cigarette smokers have incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Increasing taxes on cigarettes is a direct tax increase on people who can least afford it. And the increase isn’t insignificant.

State cigarette tax receipts jumped 54% the year after the $1 per-pack hike. In the three years since the Legislature began raising cigarette taxes, receipts have increased $762.9 million over the base of $296 million in 2007. If Wisconsin smokers follow national income patterns, that amounts to a $412 million tax increase on the state’s poorest people — the same people we pretend to help by pouring millions into social programs.

As a result of this massive tax increase on the poor, Wisconsin papered over its own fiscal mismanagement in the prior decade. Cigarette tax revenues now account for 5.3% of state general fund revenues, as opposed to only 2.35% three years ago. At $2.52 per pack, Wisconsin has the seventh-highest cigarette tax in the nation, behind only notorious spendthrifts like New York, New Jersey and Hawaii.

Democrats argued that higher cigarette taxes would dissuade people from smoking, leading to a healthier populace. Yet the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau estimates the number of smokers has dropped by only 3% per year since 2000.

In the meantime, one can walk into any gas station in Wisconsin and see a tattooed mother in her pajamas, holding a child in each arm, plunk down sixty bucks for a carton of heaters.

Sure, nobody puts a lighter to anyone’s head and forces them to buy cigarettes. But the numbers show that the new taxes aren’t really slowing many people down. And thanks to Democrats, being poor has gotten a lot more expensive.

Let’s Hope This Bill is More Expensive

Wisconsin isn’t facing a $3.3 billion deficit because taxes aren’t high enough.  Revenue has dropped because, due to high unemployment, there simply aren’t enough people paying taxes.  To fill the deficit, instead of creating new taxes, Governor Scott Walker had decided to create new taxpayers.

It’s been well publicized that Walker intends to create new workers by luring businesses from other states.  One piece of catnip he has dangled in front of out-of-state businesses is found in SS SA2 to SB3 and SSAB3 (which, if said out loud, sounds like someone falling down the stairs), the tax break for business relocation.

The bill, as amended, creates both a tax deduction and a tax credit for businesses that relocate to Wisconsin.  Under the bill, “locates to this state” means moving either 51% or more of the workforce payroll of the business or at least $200,000 of wages paid to such workforce to Wisconsin during the first taxable year to which the deduction relates.  In a nutshell, businesses that move here get to be tax free for two years.

According to the bill’s initial fiscal estimate, the cost of letting new businesses go tax-free is a fairly marginal $280,000.  (A revised Fiscal Bureau estimate puts the cost at $500,000, with the expansion of the credit into an accompanying deduction.)  The Department of Revenue came up with that estimate by figuring that the average tax liability for first-time filers in Wisconsin was $2,700, then figured that 25% of the 416 new filers in past years have been from out of state. ($2,700 * .25 * 416 = $280,800.)

Let’s hope this bill is a lot more expensive than that estimate.

The bill is meant to lure businesses from other states, which announces a change from past practice.  If the tax credit/deduction is effective, the number of businesses relocating should be a lot higher than the 104 the DOR estimates has occurred in the past.

Furthermore,  the mere number of new businesses brought in doesn’t tell the whole story.  Size matters.  If the lure of being tax free pulls in some big businesses (especially in the wake of Illinois’ recent massive tax hike), that will skew the cost upwards significantly.  One also imagines many of the “new filers” in Wisconsin were startup businesses, which may account for why their liabilities only averaged around $2,700.  Just a couple big fish in the Wisconsin pond will skew those numbers significantly.

Of course, if all goes to plan, the “cost” of the bill (which doesn’t really “cost” the state anything – it merely deprives them of taxpayer money) will be much higher – but the state will recoup that money and more by the number of new taxpayers created.  Ratcheting down the unemployment rate from 8% to, say, 4% will have the state swimming in money once again.  It will more than pay for the marginal cost of giving businesses a temporary tax holiday.

The bill has passed both the Assembly and Senate, and now heads to Governor Walker for his signature.

And if the tax break doesn’t help the state recoup its money, Wisconsin should just go bet $280,000 on the Packers in the Super Bowl.

UPDATE:  After passing the relocation tax cut bill, the Senate engaged in some partisan sniping over who was to blame for the state’s high unemployment rate.  Democratic Senator Bob Jauch stood and argued that the recession was a global one, Democrats weren’t to blame, and that the effects were being felt in states like Indiana and others.

Yet an analysis by the New York Times shows that Indiana’s budget deficit is the smallest in the nation, at 2% of spending.  Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has shown that balancing a budget can be done in times of economic distress – in Wisconsin, we just haven’t felt like it.

Getting the Government off Welfare

welfareRemember back when you could use the word “welfare” in polite conversation? Back when to show concern for one’s “welfare” was to genuinely care about their well-being? Now, being deemed a “welfare recipient” is more damaging to your reputation than being called a shoplifter, or a slow driver, or even worse, an “ex-Viking quarterback.”

It was the widespread welfare reform of the 1990s, led in large part by states like Wisconsin, that permanently altered America’s public assistance lexicon. To lawmakers, being a welfare recipient connoted laziness, sloth, and an unwillingness to change one’s ways. Taxpayers were imbued with the idea that they were paying people not to work. Now, not even the most dedicated liberals will use the term “welfare” to describe social programs.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people still out looking for government handouts in order to avoid having to change their ways. Only this time, the people looking for the most welfare now are representatives of other levels of government.

It was only two years ago that Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle tried to inflate the severity of the state’s deficit in order to pick Congress’ pocket for more cash. When the stimulus funds he sought did show up, the Governor plugged them into ongoing spending commitments, leaving a budget hole of over $3 billion for his successor. (Ironically, on his way out the door, Doyle is trying to make the deficit look smaller than it is.)

Furthermore, it was only when President Obama dangled more federal education money in front of the states that Governor Doyle began to discuss accountability in Wisconsin’s schools. Doyle, who had been invisible on education issues for seven years in office, feigned outrage when the feds saw through his last minute charade and denied Wisconsin any “Race to the Top” funds.

The federal funds Wisconsin were able to procure merely allowed the state to avoid making any structural changes to correct their fiscal course. Paying close attention were Wisconsin’s local governments, which have been operating under a similar framework for years.

In the current biennial budget, Wisconsin will send 55.3% of all the money it collects back to local governments. While generally in the name of “property tax relief,” such a framework thwarts true innovation in local government.

Have you dug your school district into an unfunded liability five times larger than the district’s operating budget? Doesn’t matter – your state check’s in the mail. Have you resisted merging police or fire services with your surrounding towns? Doesn’t matter – check’s in the mail. Does your city elect criminals while they’re sitting in jail? Do you want your payment in large bills?

Additionally, when one government collects funds and another government spends those funds, there’s a lack of accountability for how those funds are raised and spent. If I want to complain about my property taxes, and go to my local government, they tell me they’re not getting enough from the state. If I go to the state, they tell me property tax rates are set by local governments. There are always two sets of fingers pointing at each other.

It’s as if the system is a mousetrap set by mice. If the state ever tried to cut spending, the locals will simply make it up by raising property taxes.

With the electoral wipeout in Wisconsin last November, there are a lot of changes afoot for state government. Pushing more government to the local levels should be one of the fundamental structural changes that should be considered. GOP lawmakers should heed the advice of Milton Friedman:

If government is to exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington. If I do not like what my local community does, be it in sewage disposal, or zoning, or schools, I can move to another local community, and though few may take this step, the mere possibility acts as a check.

Every level of government now appeals to the level above them for cash to avoid making the tough decisions needed to balance their budget. Locals plead to the states. States pleads to the federal government. And the broke federal government has essentially sold itself to China to pay all the bills for the governments below it. (Soon China will have to appeal to the International Justice League to pay all the world’s bills. Let’s just hope Senator Batman isn’t busy the week they take the vote.)

As much as practicable, the level of government that raises the tax should be the one that spends it. That’s the only way Wisconsin will end up with real accountability in its system of taxation. Until then, state and local governments will continue to sit at home watching Real Housewives of New Jersey reruns until we stop bailing them out.

-January 4, 2011

Rethinking Wisconsin’s Tax Mix

Questions abound regarding Monday’s Refocus Wisconsin meeting held here in Madison – is former Wisconsin Revenue Secretary Rick Chandler calling for an increase in the sales tax?  Is he doing so in his capacity as a budget adviser to Governor-elect Scott Walker?  And why is orange juice served to large groups of people always so pulpy?  Who likes that much stuff floating in their beverage?

I might be able to answer at least the first two questions.  No and no.

Earlier this year, Chandler wrote an extensive article for the Refocus Wisconsin project that looked at the sustainability of Wisconsin’s long-term budget structure.  He utilized the extensive polling data our project provided him, which detailed the public’s level of comfort with various taxes.  Not surprisingly, respondents saw the sales tax as the fairest tax, while they loathed the property tax the most.

When Chandler looked at the viability of lowering some of the most hated taxes in exchange for raising what the public thought were the “fairest” taxes (the sales tax), he found some interesting economic modeling that predicted even more of a benefit from such a shift:

But here is the kicker: Economic modeling shows that rebalancing the Wisconsin tax system in a revenue-neutral way to reduce personal income and property taxes could generate about 10,000 more jobs, increase per capita income up to $400 per person, and increase investment. These are very substantial positive effects.

Chandler’s long and well-researched article goes on to describe the economic benefit from such a restructuring of our tax framework, including a look at other states that have made similar structural changes:

At whatever level of tax collections Wisconsin chooses, a tax mix that would collect less from personal income and property taxes and more from sales taxes would simply be better. It makes sound policy sense because it reduces taxes on earnings and savings. It would help in marketing the state to workers and businesses, who strongly dislike high personal income and property taxes, and would help combat Wisconsin’s “tax hell” reputation.

Economic analysis tells us that a tax mix change would boost employment, incomes and investment. Survey information tells us that the public would support a change. A tax mix change would help Wisconsin’s economy and make the tax system more acceptable to Wisconsin citizens. And in an era where there is great public distrust of government along with strong negative feelings towards incumbents both here and in Washington, this is a change that would have broad public support.

That’s something worth noting for our future lawmakers.

So Chandler was not making an immediate proposal – merely re-stating a long-term plan he had researched early in the year.  He is not advocating a sales tax increase – although the public told our pollsters they are open to discussing the tax mix in future legislative sessions.

And of course, Chandler was not acting as an agent of the Scott Walker administration, which is made clear in the Cap Times article about the event.  He was acting solely as an independent contractor to the Refocus Wisconsin project.  Chandler’s statements have no connection to his capacity as an adviser to Walker.

As for the orange juice question, it remains unanswered.  Much like why hotels put so many damn pillows on their beds.  Seriously – I’m going to walk out and go to another hotel if my bed isn’t drowned with 50 pillows?

You, Too, Can Be a State Government Employee

Over the past few months, we here at WPRI have issued a number of reports regarding the fact that state government employees pay nothing for their pensions.  And for suggesting that state employees actually pay the “employee” portion of their pension benefits, we’ve gotten significant blowback.  (See “Growing Anger Over Free Government Pensions” from our Refocus Wisconsin project.)

As it turns out, it’s not just actual state employees that can live the dream of paying nothing for their retirement benefits.  Just take a quick trip over to the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds website, and fill out the Retirement Benefits Calculator the ETF provides on its site.

In order to figure out your lifetime annuity, all you need to do is fill in your date of birth, the date on which you hypothetically plan to retire, and your three hypothetical highest earning years.

For the purposes of this exercise, I plugged in that I was a 20-year teacher with a 3-year high salary of $75,000, $76,000, and $77,000, and would be retiring in 2026.  As a result of my 20 years of service, I would receive an estimated  lifetime annuity of $$1,669.89 per month.  (I have the option of getting more up front and less on the back end if I choose the accelerated payment option.)  All, of course, for my monthly required contribution of zero dollars and zero cents.

So at your next dinner party, fire up the website, gather the guests around, and play “guess what my monthly annuity would be if I were a state employee?”  It’s bound to be a hit.

See the benefit calculator here.  (Click the “I have read the disclaimer” link at the bottom.)

Thinking Outside the Box: Ten Ways for Wisconsin Government to Raise More Revenue

box_mainSo, as you know, the state has a $2.7 billion deficit to fill.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker says he’s going to make state employees pay for a part of their own pensions as part of his deficit reduction plan. Democrat Tom Barrett’s plan to make up the deficit amounts to forcing people to ask for their health care benefits more politely. And Republican Mark Neumann’s budget plan is to have super-intelligent dolphins invent a time machine, travel back in history, and befriend the Founding Fathers. Having learned the ways and customs of Madison and Hamilton, the Founding Dolphins would return to modern time and take full control of state government based on the original framers’ intent.

(Okay, so I admit I only skimmed his press release – but honestly, his plan is only slightly less plausible than the dolphin one.)

Everyone likes “thinking outside the box” when it comes to budget remedies. Here at WPRI, we tend to favor thinking inside the box to fix what ails the state – spend less, set money aside for budget downturns, don’t violate the Constitution by raiding poor, defenseless trust funds to plug the budget, don’t issue debt to fund ongoing commitments, etc. Somehow, those ideas have become the radical ones.


Certainly, nobody wants to raise taxes to make up any portion of the deficit. In the past few budgets, the state has already jacked up all the politically “popular” taxes – the only people who can afford a carton of cigarettes in Wisconsin are now Herb Kohl, Danny Gokey, and Prince Fielder. (Fielder, knowing he won’t be on the Brewers after next year, will likely play the season in slippers and a bathrobe, with a Lucky Strike hanging from his bottom lip.)

But in the absence of any serious attempt to balance the budget, here are a few revenue enhancers the state could adopt to start to fill in the structural hole. As you can see below, the state has been missing out on some good revenue opportunities – and don’t be surprised to see these end up as part of a gubernatorial platform.

The “Deluxe Package” driver’s license

The mere process of getting a driver’s license is one of the things we all understand to be a horrifying experience. But what if you could pay for deluxe service at the DMV? Here’s how it would work:

For an extra $20 on the cost of your driver’s license, you get a free pass to go up to nine miles per hour over any posted speed limit. This is, of course, the de facto rule anyway – why not codify it and soak people for a little more cash? (A cop once told me “nine you’re fine, but ten, you’re mine.”) You get a little special sticker on your license plates so police officers know you’ve purchased “speeding insurance.”

Also, speaking of license plates, the Deluxe Package would get you the right to put whatever you want on your car tags. If you want to put “BOHUNK,” or “HALNAS,” or “JLBAIT,” (all currently banned, incidentally), then go right ahead. You are welcome to pay extra to explain to the world what a moron you are.

Finally, from now on, everyone gets weighed to determine their real weight for their driver’s license. For an extra $10, you get to knock ten pounds off the weight that shows up on your license. If it’s between that and sit-ups, which one do you think people are going to pick? (Drivers that choose the full deluxe package – speeding insurance, personalized license plates, and the vanity driver’s license, get to knock five bucks off for buying in bulk.)

Revenue Projection: $50 million

The Vengeance Pass

We all go through our lives building up grudges against people who have wronged us. The “Vengeance Pass” would finally allow people to settle their scores, without having to go to the grave with grudges outstanding.

When you turn 90 years old, you will be able to purchase a state-issued license to kill ONE person of your choosing. The only catch is, you would have to do it with your bare hands. (And, as comedian Patton Oswalt suggests, if a 90-year old guy can kill you with his bare hands, you probably deserve it anyway.)

The number of Vengeance Passes available would be limited to five per year, and would be auctioned off by the state on eBay. That way, the guys with only the most intense thirst for revenge would get the passes, and the state would squeeze them for the maximum amount of cash.

The Vengeance Pass also has the added benefit of encouraging people to want to live to be 90 years old. For instance – if I really wanted to strangle the guy who slept with my wife at the Christmas party in 1987, you bet your life I’d stay in tip-top shape in anticipation of my 90th birthday. I wouldn’t need any crappy Medicare – I’d be power juicing all my own food and doing a thousand jumping jacks a day like Jack Lalanne. There’s no way I’d drink and smoke and miss out on my Edmond Dantes moment.

Revenue: $1 million (not counting Medicare/Medicaid savings.)

The Drinking License

The tyranny has gone on long enough. At age 18, we expect young people to be adults in every aspect except one – enjoying an alcoholic beverage. It’s disgraceful that at 18 years old, you can own a shotgun but not shotgun a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

For the cost of a $300 license, an 18 year old would be able to purchase and consume alcohol. Receipt of the license would be incumbent on passing a short course on the dangers of alcohol. Absolute sobriety would still be required of those 18 to 21 who are pulled over driving – with severe penalties for violators.

Of course, some of the revenue generated by the state would have to offset the loss in federal transportation aid that would result by lowering the drinking age, as the feds continue to blackmail us to keep the drinking age at 21.

Revenue: 40,000 licenses at $500 apiece – $20 million
The UW Professor “Fantasy Camp” Program

Remember the Seinfeld episode where Kramer needs $2000 to go to fantasy camp? George observes, “His whole life is a fantasy camp. People should plunk down two-thousand dollars to live like him for a week.”

A few months ago, University of Wisconsin professors were complaining that they only made an average of $110,000 per year. This is for a job where they work on a beautiful campus, have their teaching assistants teach all their classes, take year-long sabbaticals, and hang out with 21-year old girls all day. And they complain they are underpaid.

Under the new plan, professors would actually have to pay the state to work at the UW. If their life isn’t a fantasy camp for academics, I don’t know what is. From now on, if you want to stroke your beard while eating lunch out on Bascom Hill all day, it’ll cost you $30,000 per year.

(And if we can’t find enough professors to pay to teach courses, we’ll just have the super-intelligent time traveling dolphins teach them. They work for tuna.)

Revenue: 6,622 professors, $30,000 apiece = $198 million

The “Visiting Legislator” Program

All the goofball “Good Government” groups are constantly telling us legislative seats are for sale. So as long as everyone buys that line, why not actually have one seat each in the Senate and Assembly that’s actually for sale?

For $10,000 – the cost of entry into the World Series of Poker in Vegas – you can be a state legislator for a day. Introduce a bill making it illegal to dress your dog like Abraham Lincoln. Stand up on the floor of the Assembly and pour oysters down your pants if you want. I might actually pay the cash just so I can wear a superhero costume on the floor and force the Senate President to refer to me as “Senator Spiderman.”

(Incidentally, doing any of the above would make the “Visiting Legislator” indistinguishable from half of our current lawmakers.)

Revenue: $10,000 times 365 days, times two legislative houses – $7.3 million.

Naming Rights

People long ago got used to our sacred institutions being named for corporations. Even some buildings funded with public money, like Miller Park in Milwaukee, don a business name for advertising purposes.

Are we going to pretend this shouldn’t apply to the rest of our public infrastructure? Miller Brewing pays a scant $2.1 million a year to have a stadium named after their business. Think a business wouldn’t pony up twice as much to have people refer to the State Capitol as the Arby’s Dome? Would any die hard outdoorsman refuse to go hiking in Google State Park? (Assuming they could find it in the first place, as Google maps would give them the wrong directions.)

No need to stop with buildings and highways, either. Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down a landmark case called Wisconsin Medical Society, Inc. vs. Michael Morgan. SNOOZER. I almost just fell asleep typing it.

You’re telling me more people wouldn’t check in with the Supreme Court if their decisions spiced up their names and included coupons for a free Netflix movie? And it’s all in the interest of public education. Read about the governor stealing $200 million from the state’s malpractice fund, get a free rental of Herbie: Fully Loaded.

Revenue: $100 million.

Allowing Individuals to Protect Themselves and Exercise Their Second Amendment Rights By Purchasing a $200 license to Carry a Concealed Weapon, as 48 Other States Do.

Hah – just kidding. Now I’m just being silly.

The Violent Offender Telethon

Most of the items on this list involve allowing individuals the right to pay to do something they want. But this one makes people pay to prevent something they don’t want to happen.

Each year, Wisconsin releases hundreds of violent criminals back into society. That problem will only be expedited with Governor Jim Doyle’s plan to release many of these offenders early.

There’s always a problem placing these criminals back in society – but where many see a problem, I see an opportunity.

Once a month, Wisconsin Public Television should hold a telethon, where they parade out all of the violent offenders that will be released that month. Then each community in Wisconsin gets to call and pledge money in order to avoid having each criminal relocated in their town. The community that forks over the most cash is exempt from prisoners being dropped off on their streets for one month, until the next telethon.

I already know your first question – “Wouldn’t this system benefit wealthy, white communities, who could afford to pony up the cash?” The answer is: Yes. Of course it will. But right now, all these felons are dropped off in Milwaukee, anyway – why not make the rich folks pay a little for it, instead of avoiding sex offenders for free?

Revenue: $100 million.

Daughter Insurance

Every summer in Madison, prospective students go through the campus orientation process, where they walk around the UW and see all the buildings. Daughters are accompanied by their poor, horrified fathers, who know that as soon as they leave their little girl’s side, it’s open season. Dropping your daughter off at the UW is like dropping a $100 bill on the floor of Congress – there will be a bloody pileup of guys diving to get their hands on it.

With tuition at the UW being so cheap (second to last in the Big Ten, or Big Thirteen, or whatever it is), plenty of fathers can probably afford to kick in for “Daughter Insurance.” Under this plan, your daughter will be accompanied at all times by an ex-Navy SEAL, trained in the ancient arts of Kung Fu, Jujitsu, and General Tso’s Chicken. If any young man attempts to approach your daughter, he will instantly be struck down by a swift karate chop to the larynx.

But here’s the true beauty of the program – potential suitors for your daughter could submit an application in order to speak to her. They would be required to submit a writing sample, blood test, geneology report, resume, and a $20 processing fee in order to see your daughter socially. More revenue for the state, and you will be able to avoid any accusations that you are being completely unreasonable.

Revenue: $60 million, not counting the salaries for the Navy SEALS. If they won’t work for cheap, we can use actual seals, whose bite apparently packs a wallop. (They are also rumored to be efficient at processing paperwork.)

Prisoner Deportation

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections spends about $55,000 per inmate per year to house 22,000 prisoners. This is too much.

The technology of today has rendered prisons obsolete. Instead of forking over $55,000 per inmate, we simply equip each one of them with a GPS ankle bracelet, and buy them each a $500 one-way plane ticket to Mississippi. If the ankle bracelet senses the inmate has left Mississippi for any reason, a compartment opens up, and a small scorpion jumps out and stings the inmate to death.

If the scorpion is himself a felon, then it will have to wear an ankle bracelet with an even smaller scorpion inside.

Revenue / savings: $1 billion per year.

So there you have it: $1.536 billion per year in revenue, without anyone in the state really noticing any difference in their lifestyle. (Unless, of course, you are one of the unfortunate ones who gets strangled to death by a 90-year old or karate chopped by a seal.) The state is missing out on opportunities to use the market for some serious revenue opportunities – and the gubernatorial candidates didn’t even have to pay me all their lavish consulting fees to come up with these. I do it for the kids.

Or they could just stop spending more than they take in. Either way.

Cloudy With a Chance of Crony Capitalism

Last weekend, I took some time out from teaching my kids how to make daddy a martini long enough to let them watch the movie “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”  As I’m certain you recall, the movie features a young inventor, Flint Lockwood, who devises a machine that makes it rain cheeseburgers, pizza, and, yes, meatballs.  (The movie also features the much-awaited voiceover return of Mr. T, who was robbed when the Oscar nominations were announced.)

Spoiler alert: As the movie goes on, Lockwood’s machine goes on the fritz from overuse.  The city government of Swallow Falls, sensing a huge impending windfall from tourists wanting to see food fall from the sky, forces him to overextend the machine’s capabilities, leading to unanticipated consequences.  Those consequences come when the food gets larger and larger, leading to giant pancakes falling from the sky and crushing buildings underneath.  The island of Swallow Falls is buried under giant donuts, hamburgers, and steaks.

At the end of the movie, Flint flies a homemade spaceship into the middle of a giant meatball and manages to disarm his invention.  When he gets back to the town, they treat him like a hero – even though it was his invention that caused all the problems to begin with.

Now shift ahead to today, where an even more implausible event took place: Governor Jim Doyle thinks he created some jobs.

Yesterday, Doyle announced a $1.5 million loan to the Marquis Yacht Company in Pulaski, in order to save 315 jobs.  Marquis’ parent company filed for bankruptcy last year, and now Doyle’s Department of Commerce is ready to swoop in and aid the yacht maker.

But in the spirit of Flint Lockwood, we don’t need to guess how this all started:

1.  Wisconsin’s high taxes and anti-business climate cost companies millions of dollars;

2.  Additionally, high taxes prevent individuals from buying big-ticket items, like yachts;

3.  Business owner says he or she can’t afford to pay their workers, as profits are tanking;

4.  Jim Doyle swoops in to help only those businesses he deems worthy of block grant money, thereby “saving” jobs.

Sure, it’s not as dramatic as saving humanity from destruction by 50-foot bananas, but it’s the same concept.  Doyle expects us to give him credit for saving jobs that he, in effect, forced from the state.  And the only way for a business to be deemed worthy of a bailout is to drive down to Madison, pucker up, and smooch the posterior of of the outgoing executive.

So just like the movie, maybe we should send Mr. T to the Capitol to smack some people around.  Clearly, he does not pity the fool who costs Wisconsin jobs.

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Was Mark Twain a Teabagger?

Begin reading Mark Twain’s novel “The Gilded Age,” and you’ll discover a fascinating and humorous story about settlers in early Missouri.  Its pages contain love, intrigue, and adventure.

But then, in Chapter 15, Twain (along with his co-writer Charles Dudley Warner) launches a broadside attack on Congress.  See if this sounds at all familiar:

“If you are a member of Congress, (no offence,) and one of your constituents who doesn’t know anything, and does not want to go into the bother of learning something, and has no money, and no employment, and can’t earn a living, comes besieging you for help, do you say “Come, my friend, if your services were valuable you could get employment elsewhere – don’t want you here?” Oh, no.  You take him to a Department and say, “here, give this person something to pass away the time at – and a salary” – and the thing is done.  You throw him on his country.  He is his country’s child, let his country support him.  There is something good and motherly about Washington, the grand old benevolent National Asylum for the Helpless.”

Recently at WPRI, we’ve been trying to call attention to government employee salaries and benefits.  Twain was on the same page:

“The wages received by this great hive of employes are placed at the liberal figure feet and just for skilled and competent labor.  Such of them as are immediately employed about the two Houses of Congress, are not only liberally paid also, but are remembered in the customary Extra Compensation bill which slides neatly through, annually, with the general grab that signalizes the last night of a session, and thus twenty per cent. Is added to their wages, for – for fun, no doubt.”

“The Gilded Age” came out in 1873.

Ten Tips for a Better Tea Party

Let me go on record. The Tea Party movement is wonderful.  It gets people involved in the political process who normally never would.  It forces viewpoints into the public that are sometimes hard to find.  And Tea Parties irritate just the right people.  They are on their way to being the most important movement for conservatism (or libertarianism, in some cases) in the past twenty years.

I attended the Tea Party at the Wisconsin State Capitol last weekend, and filed this video report.  It was a great event – as I documented, plenty of colorful people showed up.  It was funny – many of my liberal friends e-mailed me to express shock that I was “hard” on the Tea Partiers, while my conservative friends universally liked the friendly jabs I took.  (My goal is to one day have an obituary headline like H.L. Mencken’s: “Mencken, Critic of All, Dies.”)  I figured these are my people – I can kid with them a little, right?

In any event, despite the steaming bowl of wonderfulness that Tea Parties bring to American political discourse, there are always ways to improve them.  As I walked around and observed the festivities, I jotted down a few things I think could help build on the great event that the organizers put together this year:


I hate paying taxes.  You hate paying taxes.  But several of the speakers took this meme to the next level, saying taxpayers are being “raped” and that taxpayers have become “slaves.”  And they said it over and over and over.

Let’s be clear: paying exorbitant taxes is not like being raped.  And the government taking more of your income, as damaging to your wallet and the economy as it is, is not akin to slavery.  (Nobody on a boat headed to America from Africa in the 1800s was saying “boy, I hope they don’t tax my capital gains.”)

There are plenty of reasons to be irate about paying high taxes in order to fund wasteful government spending.  But a truly skilled speakers can relay that outrage without slipping into offensive hyperbole.  Using words like “rape” and “slavery” only serve to marginalize the great movement that has been built to this point.


In years past, it seems like a conscious effort has been made to keep elected officials and candidates from speaking at the Tea Party rallies.  But every now and then, one will slip into the mix.  This year, Ron Johnson, who is thinking about taking on U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, was given a platform to speak, while other candidates were left off the docket. (Johnson’s speech was really good, incidentally.)  Last year, fiscal dreamboat Paul Ryan spoke to the crowd, but other elected officials fighting for conservatism at the state level weren’t allowed to speak.

It seems one of the themes of the Tea Parties is that they aren’t connected to specific candidates or political parties.  Sure, they’ll get behind candidates with whom they agree (they are in the process of endorsing candidates all over the country), but many of their members have just as much animosity towards Republicans as they do Democrats.  Tea Party organizers should make it more clear what the standard is for allowing current elected officials to speak – there are plenty of state officials that would be really good.


Not all conservatives like country music.  Just stop it.  It’s almost like the musical selection is being written by what Keith Olbermann thinks right wingers would want to hear.


Much has been made of former Governor Tommy Thompson’s appearance at the Tea Party in Wisconsin last week, where he announced he would not be running against Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold.  In some respects, Tommy injected free-market conservatism into areas of state government that badly needed it (school choice, welfare reform, etc.)  But in other areas, Thompson represents exactly the type of politician that Tea Partiers despise.  Even Thompson’s staunchest defenders wouldn’t necessarily consider him thrifty with taxpayers’ money.

But when Tommy wanted to speak at the Tea Party, the organizers were stuck with a quandary: Do we exclude the most popular politician in the state, even if he’s only there to serve his own purposes?

Thompson’s appearance weakened the message of the Tea Party – it told attendees that the event was more about personalities than ideas.  Tommy’s announcement sucked media attention away from the people who had traveled to Madison from all over the state to be there, and focused it all on himself.  And the fact that his speech led people to believe he was going to run, then pulled the rug out from under them, just discouraged the crowd.

In the future, organizers should reconsider if they’re going to allow their well-meaning event to be the host for individuals to latch on to serve their own purposes.  It happened this year, and damaged the event.


Nothing gets a crowd of conservatives riled up (and rightfully so) than speakers slamming the liberal media.  And speaker after speaker did just that.  It was ironic, however, that they did so while dozens of media cameras were right there at stage side, and while just as many nattily-attired reporters were roasting under the hot sun all day covering the event.  We can rip them all we want when they pass on lefty talking points (and I will continue to do so), but on this day, they deserved credit for being there.  Chastising the media when they’re right there in front of the stage covering you looks self-defeating. (Samuel Alito just mouthed the words, “I agree.”)


Seriously – who’s ever heard of a Wisconsin event where thousands of people get together and there’s no tailgating?  Someone figure out the grilling rules for the Capitol lawn and let’s fire up the bratwurst.


Last week, speaker after speaker strode to the stage, veins bulging, demanding we take our country back.  (By the way, the new Tea Party Drinking Game involves taking a drink any time any speaker says “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  You’d be drunk in 15 minutes.)

It might be a nice change to have some speakers that can use a little humor to make their points.  The stereotype of conservatives is that they are angry and humorless.  While there’s plenty of reason to be angry, there’s also enough reason to laugh at what’s been going on in America.  It disarms people and makes the speaker seem smarter than they probably are.  Plus, it would be a nice change of pace from the apocalyptic rhetoric we get from the rest of the speaking lineup.


While some of the speakers mentioned some specific issues (Apostle David King, for instance, denounced the “ding dongs” in the Legislature about to pass a bill making it easier to commit vote fraud), many of them discuss conservatism and limited government in the abstract.  Many of them go on at length about the Founding Fathers (including an interminable speech by a guy dressed like Thomas Jefferson) and recite passages from the U.S. Constitution.  (Rule of thumb in politics: 90% of people who start talking to you about the true meaning of the Constitution are lunatics.)

More emphasis should be given to what people can do RIGHT NOW.  The Founding Fathers are great, but Ben Franklin isn’t crawling out of his crypt to stop the global warming bill in the Wisconsin State Legislature.  The people in the crowd on the capitol lawn have to do that.  Immediately.

It would be helpful if the groups organizing the Tea Party had a framework for taking action on important bills right away.  Schedule visits to legislator offices.  Form a Political Action Committee and get people to donate to it while they’re all standing right there.  Give them the tools they need to go back home and start making a difference.


It seemed like there were a dozen speakers on the docket last Thursday. (I’m not sure how many there ended up being, but it was in that area.)  The crowd seemed like it would have been just as happy with maybe five or six high-caliber speakers, as opposed to a dozen speakers of varying quality.


This one is self-explanatory.  I would pay cash money for people to avoid providing me with this visual.


The Tea Parties are on a roll – and getting people involved in spreading the message of limited government is always a good thing.  But they could certainly build on those successes, and focus that discontent into actual change.  And I’ll certainly be there next year to help.  Until then, we should all be grateful we live in a country where we can go buy a sandwich that uses two fried chicken patties as buns.

God bless you, Founding Fathers.

“Who’s Standing Up for the Rich?”

For further evidence that the New York Times isn’t even trying anymore, take this paragraph from a story today about what polling says about Tea Partiers:

“Their fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.”

Right – people are angry because Obama is helping the poor at the expense of the rich.  Pity the poor rich people of America – who will hear their cries?

What neither of the reporters seemed to grasp (and yes, it took two people to write this story) is that conservatives believe the best way to help the poor is to provide them with employment opportunities.  When government taxes businesses excessively, they have to shed workers.  When government taxes individuals excessively, they have less money to support businesses, who then can’t give low-income people jobs.

But major newspapers will keep covering conservatives as if they’re some kind of alien life form that has just landed and formed their own colony.  They do, after all, only make up between a third and a half of our country.

Are All “Special Interests” Created Equal?

“There are no political phenomena except group phenomena.”

-Arthur F. Bentley, 1908

Americans all agree – there is no more vulgar term in politics than the label “special interest.” “Special interests” are blamed for all the worst government failures – the economy, health care costs, rising fuel prices, Joe Biden’s hair plugs.

So what is a “special interest?” Generally speaking, it’s a group of people to which we don’t belong, lobbying government to do something that we don’t like. (Groups that we are members of and with which we are aligned are generally glowingly referred to as “grassroots organizations,” or “advocacy groups.”)

As it turns out, it appears Americans have a constitutional right to form groups to lobby their government. It’s not like one of the phony “rights” people claim these days (like the right to be told that Froot Loops doesn’t actually contain fruit) – it’s actually right there in the First Amendment, which grants the “right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This is essentially the U.S. Government’s customer service policy – if you don’t like what they’re doing, you have a right to convince them to change it. (This is far superior to the customer service policy at Sears, where you will not be allowed to redress your grievances if you try to return an opened pack of men’s underwear.)

In fact, special interests are vital to democracy. Government has gotten so large and expansive, individuals simply can’t affect change on their own. Many of the most important political movements of the past century have been led by groups such as the NAACP, anti-war interests, and groups representing the disabled. Political scientist James Q. Wilson once compared government to a human body – where individuals are the atoms that form organs (special interests) that allow the body to function. (In this metaphor, Congress is most likely the colon.)

So special interests are necessary to secure the interests of their members – without them, the only power would be that of the government. Elected officials could run roughshod over the public, without any checks and balances. But are all special interests created equal?

Without question, interests exist to further agendas that benefit their own agendas (hence the term “interest.”) But the actual interests of these groups vary wildly. At their most basic level, special interests can be broken down into two categories: interests who want government to recede, and interests that want government to expand.

When you hear “good government” groups denouncing special interests, they are virtually always criticizing groups that represent business interests. Business groups almost universally want government to recede. They want lower taxes, so people can keep more of their hard earned money – then spend that money on all the junk they sell, like the preposterous “Hoodie Footie.” (The hug you can wear.)

Several major groups in Wisconsin fall into this category. At the forefront is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which is constantly vilified for their advocacy on behalf of the business community. But they are not alone – the Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Builders Association both love lower property taxes, as it makes it cheaper for people to own homes. The Wisconsin Restaurant Association recognizes that more money in peoples’ pockets equals more trips to Qdoba.

On the other hand, there are special interests that seek to expand government’s influence. To these groups, higher taxes and more government regulation is in their members’ interest, as they feel the services they provide are meaningful and necessary.

At the forefront of these groups is WEAC, the state’s teachers’ union. Any attempt to scale back education funding increases is portrayed by the teachers’ union as akin to poisoning children with arsenic, then setting them on fire, then taking a “meat axe” to them, then poisoning them with arsenic again. They lobby for higher taxes in the name of funding “adequacy” and “fairness.”

Right behind WEAC are other government-related unions, which advocate for things like “prevailing wage” laws, which funnel more money to their members. Trial lawyer organizations seek government action allowing them to reap greater amounts via lawsuit. Native American tribes need new laws granting them expanded gaming at their casinos, and lobby to make it happen.

(If there is anything positive to be said about environmental special interests, it is that their members appear to be motivated by things other than financial interests. They just want to be able to listen to Fairport Convention on their iPods while minnows swim through their toes. However, this doesn’t make them any less annoying.)

So here we have two distinct types of “special interests:” one type that advocates lower taxes and less regulation so citizens can keep more of their income, and one type that advocates higher taxes and more regulation so they can divert more of that income to their members. They are as ideologically as different as can be – and yet they are both always derided by the broad “special interest” tag.

In fact, as mentioned, it is almost always businesses – who are the ones lobbying for lower taxes and more liberty – that bear the brunt of anti-special interest sentiment (see addendum below.) And sure, businesses are looking out for their own interests – but only because it benefits them to let me make my own decisions with my income. Somehow, business interests that want me to keep my own income are “greedy,” while the teachers’ union’s attempts to pad their own nest egg at my expense are just “looking out for the kids.”

(SIDE NOTE: Of course, WPRI is often derided as being a shill for big business and what not. In order to disprove this charge, I have waited until the very end of this column to mention that this commentary is brought to you by EGGO WAFFLES.)




In 2003, the anti-business government “watchdog” Wisconsin Democracy Campaign thought they had found evidence of corruption in state government that “cost” Wisconsin taxpayers $4.6 billion. Sounds pretty serious.

To prove all this corruption, the WDC looked at business tax receipts from 1979 – when they were at an all time high – and saw that business taxes comprised 11.3 percent of general fund revenues. Then they compared those revenues to 2002 – when the U.S. was in the midst of a recession – and found that taxes accounted for 4.2 percent of general fund taxes. They then calculated what business tax receipts would have been in 2002 had they been at the same level in 1979, and deduced that “corruption” was costing taxpayers $1.34 billion per year.

This is like saying that since Prince Fielder hit 50 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007, he should be expected to do it every year. And since he only hit 34 in 2008, “costing” Brewers fans 16 home runs, he must be taking bribes from the Cincinnati Reds.

Let’s look at corporate taxes as a percentage of the general fund according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau:


Corporate Taxes























As you can see, corporate taxes in 2001-02 comprised 5.02% of the general fund in 2001-02, not 4.2%, as the WDC claimed. Then, lo and behold, the percentage began to climb – until it reached 7.05% in 2007. But aren’t businesses corrupt? Did they decide to start paying more in taxes because they decided to somehow be less corrupt? Where was that WDC press release?

The answer, of course, is that this is a flawed measurement of businesses’ tax effort. For instance, if businesses leave the state or if their tax receipts are down, it makes it look like they’re paying less in taxes. If individual taxes go up, or the number of citizens paying taxes increases, it looks like businesses are paying less in taxes. There are literally dozens of reasons these numbers could fluctuate – and none of them can be attributed to “corruption.” (It is also obvious how ridiculous it is to compare tax receipts to the 11.3% of 1979, as the number has hovered around 6% for over a decade.)

So there you have it – any time the Legislature passes a bill creating an expensive new prescription drug benefit for seniors, it’s not “corruption.” When a school district grants new health insurance benefits to retired employees, which they don’t know how to pay for and will one day swallow up half their payroll, there’s no special favors to be found there. It’s only bogus manufactured business numbers that demonstrate “corruption.”

Charitable Hypocrisy

I like charity.  You like charity.  Liberals like charity because it helps assuage their heavy consciences.  Conservatives like charity because it shows people will contribute to the betterment of society without being forced to do so by government.

It makes sense, then, that the tax code reflects this inter-political-species hand holding.  Many non-profit organizations are tax-exempt, in an effort to provide incentive for people to donate.  (In fact, I can think of one such tax-exempt nonprofit… ahem…  that provides, a safe, cozy, and warm home for your hard earned dollar.)

In the Wisconsin State Legislature, the powers that be go all out in getting people to donate to a select few of these nonprofits.  Each year, they conduct the “Partners in Giving” campaign, with each employee receiving a book containing a list of charities seeking donations.  According to the guide book, the Secretary of the Department of Administration (a.k.a., the governor’s right hand man) “gives final authorization to all participating umbrellas and charities.”

When looking through the eligible charities, one cannot help but notice that the book contains a laundry list of liberal causes – many of which who turn right around and lobby the State Legislature to pass their pet bills, and some of which actually spend money during campaigns to support and oppose candidates.  For instance, state employees can give to:

  • Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin
  • 1000 Friends of Wisconsin
  • ACLU of Wisconsin
  • Citizen Action of Wisconsin
  • Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups
  • Fair Wisconsin
  • League of Women Voters
  • The Progressive Magazine
  • Sierra Club, John Muir Chapter
  • Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
  • PETA
  • NARAL Pro-Choice America

All of these groups are liberal, most of them advocate for specific legislation, and many of them try to alter the outcomes of elections.  (Many of them, such as the Wisconsin Democracy campaign, have both 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 status – if you’re a (c)3, you are not permitted to advocate for candidates or elections.  If you’re a (c)4, you are permitted to speak out on legislation, but contributions to you are not tax deductible.  If you’re BOTH, then it muddies the picture quite a bit.)

(See the complete list of charities here – the only one I saw that could reasonably be considered “conservative” would be Right to Life.)

Of course, the fact that these organizations are seeking donors isn’t at all controversial.  People can give as much money as they want to whatever ideological group they want.  But consider the fact that each of these groups goes out of their way to advocate for higher taxes on the Wisconsin public, yet they each seem more than happy to benefit from the tax breaks they get by having nonprofit status.  They think high taxes are a wonderful thing – until it’s time to bankroll their own organizations.

Take, for example, the buffoonery that occurs at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a lefty front group that criticizes 3rd party organizations that advocate for legislation, while their Executive Director, Mike McCabe, travels the state advocating for a $15.2 billion tax increase to fund a single payer health plan.  McCabe is more than willing to deprive the government funds in order to bait people into giving him money, but thinks we should all pay MORE in taxes to fund his prized legislative agenda.

In fact, the best thing these liberal groups can do to help their own cause is to forgo their own tax exemptions. Take, for, example, the League of Women Voters, who are spending all their time advocating for an expensive “public option” for health care on the federal level.  Here’s a portion of their official position on “tax structure:”

The League: supports income as the major tax base for federal revenues; believes that the federal income tax should be broad-based with minimal tax preferences and a progressive rate structure;

See there?  They’re against tax preferences… unless those preferences benefit their ability to lobby for a deficit-busting health care bill.

For the record (in case you’re at home scribbling all of this into a note pad), my position isn’t that these groups shouldn’t be given tax exempt status.  (Although the interplay between (c)3 and (c)4 status should be examined more closely, as it’s clear some groups take advantage of this distinction.)  Taxes should be lower for everyone, nonprofits included.

However, it says a lot about these groups that they essentially admit the benefit to their organizations by making money tax free; then they turn around and advocate higher taxes for other businesses seeking the same relief.

Finally, it should be noted that 95% of the charities on the state’s list seem to be worthwhile – so feel free to make a contribution here.

The Lobbying Class in Madison Just Got Bigger

Here in Wisconsin, we have dozens of laws regulating lobbyists.  If you regularly lobby legislators, you have to register with the state as a lobbyist, report the bills and issues on which you lobby, how much time you spend on each, and how much money you spend lobbying legislators on individual issues.  This all makes sense, as it helps the public’s right to know how much influence certain groups have on specific legislation that makes it through the process.

(All the lobbying data can be found here.)

Of course, if you’re a regular citizen, you have a constitutional right to petition your government for the redress of grievances.  Any individual constituent can call their legislator at any time and tell them what they think about certain topics, without having to register with the state or jump through bureaucratic hoops.

It appears, however, that one municipality has just figured out a way to circumvent the state lobbying law by signing up their entire city workforce as their team of lobbyists – none of which will be subject to the reporting requirements.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the tension between the state and local governments when it comes to funding.  My solution was to give locals more power to raise revenue and set their own budgets, while reducing the state program that sends nearly $1 billion back to local governments per year (called “shared revenue.”)  The shared revenue program has been a constant fight between the state and locals, especially as the level of aid has essentially been frozen for 12 years.

Rather than do what some municipalities do, which is to hire a lobbyist to plead for more money from Madison (you get the irony here – local governments spend taxpayer money on a lobbyist to go to the State Legislature to beg for more taxpayer money), the City of West Allis has gone one step further – they are proposing hiring their entire city workforce to serve as lobbyists.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, West Allis is proposing tying employee raises to, in part, increases in shared revenue from the state.  This oddball arrangement immediately makes every state employee an instant lobbyist for their cause to pull down more money from Madison.  One can imagine the phone lines between West Allis city employees and legislative offices in the Capitol are going to be burning up, demanding more money for raises.  And it won’t cost city taxpayers a dime – it merely shifts city workers’ incentives.

Imagine if a private company offered its workers a contract that stipulated raises were based on how much aid that company could get from the state.  Would anyone see this as a legitimate strategy?  Having all their employees on their knees, begging for taxpayer money to get raises?  Yet this is exactly what West Allis is proposing – having their employees becoming their lobbyists, as they haven’t been able to make their case for increased funding on their own.

In the Journal Sentinel article, a clueless political science professor at UW-Madison is quoted:

Donald Moynihan, associate professor of public affairs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison, said employees might not like the proposal because their pay would be tied to factors they cannot control.

That’s the whole idea of the proposal. To get the employees to try to control the factors which will lead to increased wages.  They are a built in lobbying corps – might as well use them.

The Power of the Pen (and Why Property Taxes Might Not Be So Bad)

See that pen on your desk? Right over there, by the stapler. As it turns out, that pen is one of the most powerful instruments you can own. The U.S Constitution was written with a pen. Lincoln freed the slaves with a pen. Most importantly, some girl in middle school probably broke your heart when she used a pen to check the “NO” box in response to your sweaty “Do you like me?” query.

In fact, while Wisconsin state government-related interest groups spend millions of dollars on lobbyists to influence lawmakers, that pen on your desk is the most influential implement in state government. It is the entire reason we structure our Wisconsin state and local governments in the manner we do.

Wisconsin residents pay all kinds of taxes. They pay income taxes (which are usually automatically deducted from their paycheck) or sales taxes (which are automatically added to their purchase), or corporate taxes (which are passed through in the form of higher prices.) Yet with all the billions of dollars in taxes Wisconsin citizens pay, one particular levy stands alone in its repugnance. It is the property tax.

Poll after poll demonstrates that Wisconsin residents object to paying the property tax more than any other tax – even if, say, their income tax liability is greater than the amount they pay in property taxes. But it’s all money, after all, so why is paying property taxes so much more painful?

The answer has to do with the physical way in which each tax is paid. When we pay property taxes, that pen must come off the desk and sign a check over to the government. Rather than automatically handing money over to the government, paying property taxes is a proactive endeavor, usually involving the clenching of teeth, irritability, and alcohol consumption.

The painful act of writing a check to the government has far-reaching consequences. For decades, Wisconsin politicians have been myopic in their quest to relieve the property tax burden on individuals. In 1995, Governor Tommy Thompson sent an extra $1 billion to local school districts to buy down the property tax levies around the state. Governor Jim Doyle’s special commission on school funding suggested raising the sales tax in order to replace a portion of the unpopular property tax. Legislative Republicans fought a bloody internecine war in an attempt to pass the Taxpayers Bill of Rights in an attempt to hold down property taxes. Their Democrat colleagues have spent years pushing a plan to exempt a portion of residential property from having to pay taxes. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Clearly, state government is dedicated to keeping you from having to pick that pen up off your desk. But this raises a provocative – and in Wisconsin, almost unspeakable – question:

What if property taxes are the best way to tax?

I recognize that even asking such a question will go over about as well as a complete sentence at the Country Music Awards. But what if there is a case to be made for more reliance on the property tax, and less on income, sales, and corporate taxes?

Obviously, lower taxes and lower spending would be the ideal goal. But if we have to choose one tax over the other, which one does the most good for the economy?

In 2006, conservative Mount Rushmore occupant Milton Friedman re-stated his long-term opposition to taxes, but said “The property tax is one of the least bad taxes, because it’s levied on something that cannot be produced — that part that is levied on the land.”

In other words, taxes on income, sales, and corporations depress activities that are beneficial to a robust economy. They punish work, job creation, and production – all things necessary for the creation of wealth in society. Naturally, the more you tax these activities, the less of them you get – which causes big trouble when the economy starts to recede.

In this month’s Atlantic Monthly, New America Foundation fellow Reihan Salam picks up on this idea, and proposes ending all taxes except for the property tax:

“Chronic revenue shortfalls have crippled local governments ever since, leading to heavier reliance on punishing state income and sales taxes. What if the problem isn’t the property tax at all but rather, well, all other taxes? In 1879, Henry George, a brilliant if slightly crankish autodidact, published Progress and Poverty, a scathing polemic that blamed all economic ills on the private ownership of land. A staunch believer in laissez-faire economics, George found it perverse that we tax productive activities like work and innovative investment while letting landowners grow rich simply because they scooped up property at the right time. In that spirit, George called for a “Single Tax” on the unimproved value of land. There’s a certain compelling logic to the Single Tax that stands the test of time. When you tax income, aren’t you punishing people for working hard? But when you tax an asset like land, you’re simply encouraging the most valuable use of that land.”

In Wisconsin, local governments have levied property taxes since before the state even became a territory in 1836. (It was probably around that time that profanity was invented.) In 1842, Governor James Doty called property taxes “unequal, illegal and highly oppressive.” Wisconsin wouldn’t become a state for another six years.

Since then, one of the primary focuses of the state government has been trying to keep property taxes down. In 1911, when the state began levying an income tax, state government immediately began sending funds to local governments to offset reliance on the property tax.

In the most recent state budget, 55.3% of the state’s general fund appropriations go to local governments for the purpose of holding down property taxes. But this creates an enormous accountability gap, which would be eliminated if the state got out of the business of funding local governments.

Imagine the plight of the typical property taxpayer. If they want to complain about their taxes being too high, they go to the local governments, who blame the state government for not giving them enough money. When they complain to their state legislators, they point out that local governments set property tax rates. Both levels of government blame each other, spending continues to go up, and taxpayers receive no answers.

Shifting taxation to the local level also would benefit civic participation. Studies have show that as more government decisions are moved up to the state and federal levels, the more citizens tend to disengage from civic involvement. When the state takes over more and more of the decision making for schools, fewer and fewer local residents bother to go to school board meetings. When the state micromanages local city, village, and town budgets, fewer people engage in municipal politics at the grassroots level, where decisions are made that most closely affect those constituents.

If state sales and income taxes were cut, and programs like shared revenue reduced (which sends nearly $1 billion per year to local governments) there would be more accountability in how tax dollars are spent. Yes, property taxes would go up to make up for the lost state aid – but then, citizens would be able to more directly affect their tax level and how those funds are spent at the local level.

Furthermore, property taxes are assessed on those that have wealth. They are not necessarily progressive, as everyone in a taxing jurisdiction pays the same rate – but they certainly aren’t as regressive as sales taxes, which force low income people to pay a larger percent of their income to buy things. People that own property tend to have money – and those people may actually do well under a scenario where income taxes are cut and the property tax increases.

Property tax opponents (read: everyone) would argue that property values don’t relate to income – that some senior citizens may be low income, but have a very high value home that they, say, bought for cheap on a lake 50 years ago. Thus, increasing property taxes would hurt those people, as they have little income and high property values.

These individual examples may exist, but in the aggregate, income and property wealth are tied fairly closely.

The following chart compares property values to income in Wisconsin’s 426 school districts. As can be seen, there is a tight correlation between how much people make in income (as reported to the State Department of Revenue) and their property values (as reported to the Department of Public Instruction.) There appear to be about eight outliers – school districts with high property values and low incomes – but several of these are special districts. For the other 418 districts, the more they make, the more in property value they have.


Clearly, relying more heavily on the property tax and less on the sales and income tax would be taxing people with more means. Furthermore, reducing sales, income, and corporate taxes at the state level would be rewarding activities that would get the economy moving once again – more incentive for job creation, for advancing in one’s career, and for purchasing goods to aid in business development.

A plan to shift taxes away from economy-boosting activities and on to property taxes has some perils, however.

First, such a plan would need the state’s finances to be somewhat in balance to work. As it is, the state’s structural deficit stands at $2.2 billion going into the next budget. In other words, the state could shift $2.2 billion in spending onto the property tax in the next two years, without having cut a single cent from the sales, income, or property tax. Consequently, there wouldn’t be any stimulation to the private sector – merely an enormous property tax increase without any economic benefit.

Furthermore, shifting taxation from state to local taxes would make it more expensive to own a home. But the plan would have to come with commensurate reductions in other taxes, which could more than make up for that extra expense. If lowering business and income taxes has the stimulative effects that can be expected, more people will have better jobs, make more money, and pay less in income taxes – to the point that it may supersede the increased cost of a home. And for those with low incomes, programs such as the Homestead Tax Credit can be reconfigured to give the largest relief to those who need it the most.

Maybe shifting taxation away from the productive activities that drive our economy would get the state roaring once again. Maybe it would force us all to live in caves. But it is certainly a discussion that will never occur at the Capitol, where “we’ve always done it this way,” seems to be the most influential argument made by lawmakers. And certainly, in a climate where upwards of 80% of citizens are in favor of freezing property taxes, a shift to local control seems about as likely as state legislators turning the Capitol into a bed and breakfast. (Even if a plan included a commensurate sales and income tax cut.)

But we shouldn’t let an arbitrary thing like how we physically pay our taxes get in the way of how we should more equally distribute taxation for the purposes of bettering our state. In fact, perhaps the state could set up a program to pay property taxes automatically out of paychecks, which people don’t seem to mind – as long as it’s out of their sight.

Just don’t stab me with your pen.

-July 30, 2009

Look Out for Pterodactyls: Here Come the Democrats

I’ve posted about this before, but this most recent example just clarifies the blatant hypocrisy from both lawmakers and the teachers’ union.

Last week, Governor Doyle announced he would consider “cuts” to K-12 education as a way of making up the additional $1.6 billion deficit the state has recently identified.  (A “cut” simply means “not giving teachers as much money as they want,” even though total spending will continue to increase.)

Of course, when the state aid increase to school districts is scaled back, districts will simply raise property taxes to make up the difference.  Apparently, Democratic lawmakers are taking steps to cap these tax increases.  From last week’s Wispolitics Report:

Without changes to the revenue limits, the cuts to state aid that Doyle and lawmakers are considering could be backfilled with property taxes to make up most of the difference.  

But sources familiar with talks going on between the administration, legislators and school officials said revenue limits on school districts could be tightened to limit the impact on property taxpayers, or there could be a reduction in the per pupil adjustment.

Perhaps you remember such a scheme to hold down property taxes in the face of smaller increases in state aid.  Legislative Republicans proposed similar plans for eight years running – with Governor Jim Doyle vetoing all of the property tax freeze proposals that got to his desk.

In fact, in 2003, WEAC reacted to a proposal similar to the one being proposed by Democrats now by saying it would “return Wisconsin to the Ice Age.”  In the last budget, when Republicans proposed tightening revenue caps to allow an increase of $100 per pupil, Democratic Senator Bob Jauch said he had “a hard time understanding the Republican compulsion to take a meat axe to the children of this state.” Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Russ Decker said the proposal was like “putting a gun to the head of public education and to students.”

It appears Doyle and legislative Democrats have been doing a little shopping at Menard’s, as they now appear willing to both wield a meat axe and aim a shotgun at our children.  The budget Jauch and Decker will end up voting for might end up being bloodier than the entire “Friday the 13th” movie franchise.

Perhaps the most vocal critic of a plan to cap property taxes was Governor Jim Doyle, who in his 2003 budget veto message, said:

The Republicans in the Legislature had a different approach. Instead of focusing on the problems with the state government’s budget – problems they played a key role in creating over the last decade – they tore a page out of the discredited playbook of the last Governor and pointed their fingers at the leaders of our local communities and schools. They tried to distract attention from their unfair cuts and sham budgeting by resorting to political gimmicks and slogans.

The arguments against their levy limits are numerous, but at the heart is a very basic Wisconsin value: We in Wisconsin have believed for more than 150 years that local communities know best the needs of their citizens.


That value – trusting our communities to make wise decisions – has served us well in education. It has given us schools that are the envy of the nation. Our children consistently perform at the top of national tests. They are our future. In order for Wisconsin to prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy, our children must have the very best education available to them. Our teachers work very hard to deliver that education, often under extremely difficult circumstances. Making children and teachers the victims of the state’s fiscal mess is irresponsible and inconsistent with Wisconsin’s values.

Is Doyle going to issue a press release condemning his own plan making “children an teachers the victims of the state’s fiscal mess?”  Or does he save that rhetoric for Republicans when they hold one or more of the houses of the Legislature?  Amazing how things change when one party runs everything and you don’t have a reliable bogeyman on which to blame everything.

I can’t wait to hear all the outrage from the teachers’ union when this new plan goes into effect.  More likely, we’ll hear praise heaped upon our lawmakers for “making the tough choices” and showing “fiscal discipline.”

Of course, these aid “cuts” wouldn’t be necessary if the state merely required government employees to kick in a little to their own retirement accounts.

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