Guest commentary Tax-funded lobbyists advocate higher taxes

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Your taxpayer dollars are hard at work right now pushing a series of biased referenda questions on the fall ballot around Wisconsin, including southern Wisconsin, that ask you to vote in favor of higher taxes.

Quite literally, local governments are using your money to advocate raising taxes.

Not only are municipalities and counties using thousands of taxpayer dollars to put these questions on the ballot, local governments have also been asked to fork over hundreds of thousands of additional taxpayer dollars to fund a campaign in favor of these referenda.

A RECENT story in this paper titled "'Dark Store' Dispute Could Cost Millions," got basic facts wrong about this issue. This commentary is meant to correct the record.

To start, these referenda are biased. For example, Rock County's (identical to several others around the state) referendum states: Should the state Legislature enact proposed legislation that closes the dark store loopholes, which currently allow commercial retail properties to significantly reduce the assessed valuation and property taxes of such properties, resulting in a substantial shift in taxes levied against other tax paying entities, such as residential homeowners, and/or cuts in essential services provided by an affected municipality?

THIS question accuses commercial property owners of significantly reducing their legally assessed valuation - which they are not and cannot do - when it is actually local governments who have illegally over-assessed businesses.

In numerous cases, aggressive assessors have valued and taxed them as high as three or four times the amount the business would sell for on the open market. If your home was assessed at this rate, you too would fight back.

Second, there has been a tax shift, but in the opposite direction. In the last decade, Wisconsin Department of Revenue numbers show the tax burden has shifted by about three percent from homeowners to businesses - not the other way around as this question claims.

Instead of lobbyists using referenda like these as a tool for tax and spend government officials to raise revenue, they should be neutrally worded and simply used to gauge public support of an issue. Regrettably, the policy behind the referenda is even worse, and taxpayer-funded lobbyists are strongly advocating for legislators to pass these tax-hiking bills.

THE article inaccurately conflated two separate pieces of legislation and the "problems" the bills are supposed to address. These bills, which failed to pass last session, claim to close "dark store" and "Walgreens" loopholes that do not exist.

The first bill would allow tax collectors to value occupied property higher solely because of its occupancy. For example, if you had two homes identical in every respect except that one was occupied and one was vacant, the occupied home would be assessed and taxed more than the vacant one - even though the fair market value would be the same for each home. No rational buyer would pay more for the occupied home than the vacant one.

The second, would allow tax collectors to value and tax financial agreements, contracts and other things of value that are "inextricably intertwined" with a property. If this were applied to a residential home - which it could be because of the Wisconsin constitution's uniformity clause - your local government could raise your property taxes because you took out a mortgage. However, property taxes would not be hiked on your neighbor who bought the same exact house but had the means to purchase it with cash. How absurd is that?

THE FACT that local governments are spending your taxpayer dollars to advocate higher taxes is truly unfortunate. Increasing taxes benefits no one. The consequences of tax hikes are very real: fewer jobs, higher consumer prices for goods and services, and more expensive housing.

These referenda and the legislation behind them are bad for Wisconsin's improving business climate and taxpayers, alike.

Corydon Fish is the Director of Tax, Transportation and Legal Affairs for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC).

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