On page 6A of your favorite weekly newspaper is a list of the property tax mil rates paid by landowners in every city, village and town in Grant, Lafayette and Iowa counties, further divided where appropriate by school district, fire district and special district.
This is something I’ve been doing in every publication I’ve worked for for 20 years, including, for half of those years, a business magazine that covered 20 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. This comparison is important because it’s important to show the consequences of government spending and tax policy in your county, school district and municipality, as well as the effects of mandates from the east — Madison and Washington, to be geographically precise.
When I started doing this, I had to contact each county, explain what I was looking to get, and, for the recalcitrant counties, threaten them with exposing their lack of cooperation if they didn’t hand over their property tax mil rates. Now, in two cases I got the mil rates off the counties’ websites, and in the third, I called and asked for them, and they were emailed to me. That’s the progress of technology and people realizing what the news media can do.
In a state with, according to the Tax Foundation, the fourth highest state and local taxes of any state in this country, property taxes are the least popular taxes we pay. The reason is that, even in an era where most owner-occupied homes have mortgages on them, there are still people (and probably a larger percentage in rural areas than in bigger cities) who own their homes outright. (Property taxes were also the first taxes paid in this state, going back to statehood.)
Sales taxes are paid for every time you buy something, so most people couldn’t tell you how much they pay in sales taxes each year. Income taxes have been withheld from paychecks since World War II, so many people get checks back after April 15, not realizing that those tax refunds are an interest-free loan to the government. (Business people do know how much they pay in taxes, since they have to send the government income tax payments each quarter.)
If you have a mortgage, you get a statement toward the end of the year, and if what you’ve put in escrow for property taxes is less than your property tax bill, you get to write a check. But if you own your home mortgage-free, you get to write that big check yourself, in one or two installments. The evidence of how much you pay for your schools, your police, your streets and other government services is right there in black and white, clear as crystal. (The fact that property taxes are deductible off income taxes while sales taxes are not doesn’t seem to matter to those who think their property tax bills are too high.)
The state sales tax started in 1962 at 3 percent, ostensibly for property tax relief. (It’s somewhat ironic that while Wisconsin was the first state with an income tax — in 1911, predating the federal income tax, to reduce the outsized property tax burden of farmers — it was one of the later states with a sales tax.) It was increased to 4 percent in 1969, and 5 percent in 1982, both for the same reason — property tax relief. In 1985, counties were allowed to enact a 0.5-percent sales tax for, you guessed it, property tax relief. At no point in the 51-year history of the sales tax has the sales tax served to reduce property taxes. Keep that in mind when you read a proposal for more money for schools through an increase in the sales tax.
(Here’s how long I’ve been doing this: I was in Grant County in 1991 for the 17th Senate District Republican primary race between Reps. David Brandemuehl and Dale Schultz to replace retiring Sen. Richard Kreul. Schultz then was a proponent of the concept of getting school taxes, the largest component of property taxes, off property tax bills. There then was a group called School Taxes Off Property, which now appears to have a website, www.fairtaxes.com. You may have noticed the lack of progress in that effort over the past two decades.)
How government is funded has gotten beyond funding the functions of government to the question of what is “fair” in taxation, which includes not only tax rates, but what is, or isn’t, taxed. (The question of “fair” taxation leads to the next question, “fair” tax relief.) Some argue that sales taxes unfairly tax those with lower incomes because they spend a higher percentage of their incomes than those with more income. Some argue that sales taxes sould be expanded to cover currently-exempt items such as professional services. Some argue that instead of taxing income, we should tax spending and not saving. All those and other tax and tax relief arguments contain some valid points, as long as those who advocate raising taxes advocate raising taxes that affect themselves; to call for raising taxes that don’t affect you is intellectually dishonest.
In the quarter century I’ve been covering schools, I’ve wondered why more people don’t show up for school district annual meetings. Unlike counties, cities, villages and towns, school districts (except for the very largest ones) are required by state law to hold annual meetings in which voters get to decide the fate of the school district’s property tax levy. Most years, I’ve had plenty of time to count how many people were voting at the meeting. Even renters should be at those meetings, because except for those who live in UW–Platteville dorms, renters pay property taxes too; they’re part of the rent.
The other legal feature that distinguishes school districts from other units of government is that voters get to decide the fate of major expenditures, such as new school buildings or major school construction, in the case of the Iowa–Grant School District April 2. In contrast, the City of Platteville spends millions of dollars each year on capital projects, with no say from those footing the bill — property taxpayers — except in the indirect sense of Common Council elections, two of which are also coming up April 2.