Fighting For Higher Taxes With Taxpayer Money

By James Wigderson for Media Trackers

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities is asking its members for more taxpayer money to fight for higher taxes on businesses, and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) is crying foul.

“It is laughable that taxpayer funds could be used to promote higher taxes, however that is exactly what the League of Wisconsin Municipalities is trying to do,” said Scott Manley, WMC Senior Vice President of Government Relations, in a statement Tuesday.

In a letter, the League’s Executive Director Jerry Deschane is asking each member for an additional $1200 at a minimum to fight for so-called “dark store” legislation in Madison that would change how commercial property is assessed. Multiplied by 189 cities and 399 villages, the League is hoping to raise a minimum of $705,600 in taxpayer money to be able to raise taxes on businesses.

Deschane said the money was necessary to protect homeowners and small businesses.

“Someone has to advocate for the homeowner and mom and pop businesses that are left paying more property taxes when certain businesses use loopholes to avoid paying their fair share of the cost of local services,” Deschane replied to our inquiry in an email on Tuesday. “Homeowners already pay 68 percent of the state property tax levy. Shifting more of the burden on to them is not sustainable nor fair. That is what the League’s public education campaign is about. Stopping the shift.”

WMC disagreed with Deschane, saying that the League misstates what the proposed legislation would do.

“According to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, between 2008 and 2017, the statewide property tax burden has shifted from residential to commercial and manufacturing property taxpayers by 2.8 percent,” WMC said in their press release on Tuesday. “These pieces of legislation would make this property shift even worse by hiking property taxes based solely on occupancy or having financing agreements such as mortgages or sale-leaseback contracts. The implications of these bills go far beyond retail to all businesses.”

Manley said now is not the time to suddenly raise taxes on commercial property.

“After nearly eight years of Wisconsin reducing the tax burden at almost every level, we have seen countless local businesses across the state create family-sustaining, middle-class jobs,” Manley said. “Now is not the time to return to the tax-and-spend policies of the past that only aided in weakening our economy.”

The proposed legislation would allow municipalities to use criteria other than what the building and the land is worth when assessing property taxes. Proponents say that court decisions limiting the property tax assessments of retail commercial property has resulted in a property tax shift to homeowners.

However, WMC contends that the legislation would completely rewrite how taxes are assessed and would result in tax increases. The problem is not with the business community, organizations like WMC claim, but with overly aggressive tax assessors and tax-hungry communities who lose in court when they try to tax retail store properties too much.

In addition to the $1200 in tax money from each member municipality, Deschane’s letter said the League was tapping into the organization’s reserves for an additional $75,000. Among the uses for the money, the League is sending each member community “a toolkit of resources” for use at the local level. The “toolkit” would include information about holding advisory referendums in the August primary election and the November general election, costing taxpayers even more in this coordinated “issue advocacy campaign” as the League is calling it.

The additional tax money from each municipality for the “dark store” legislation effort would be more than double what the League spent on lobbying in Madison on all of the issues concerning the organization’s members in the last legislative session. The League spent a total of $296,243.93 in the 2017-18 legislative session on lobbying in Madison on various issues, according to the the Wisconsin Ethics Commission.

In addition to its own efforts, according to Deschane’s letter, the League is also coordinating with the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Wisconsin Towns Association, the League of Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance, “and others.”

Eric Bott, executive director for Americans for Prosperity in Wisconsin, expressed his concern about how the municipalities’ tax money is being spent to fuel the League’s “Dark Store” effort.

“That’s just big government milking the taxpayer to perpetuate big government,” Bott said. “It’s really something that the state should look at to the extent we allow government to use taxpayer resources to lobby for more government.”