Doyle Use of One-Time Money Would Create Full-Time Tax Burden

With less than one year until we elect his successor, Governor Jim Doyle wants to complete his reputation as a tax-and-spend governor. Doyle announced right before Christmas that he would consider lifting the property tax caps on some school districts.

I think Wisconsinites would have preferred coal in our stockings.

Doyle plans on using $250 million in federal “Race to the Top” federal money to boost school funding in some districts. But when the “Race to the Top” money runs out, Doyle would like to lift the caps on property taxes in those districts.

This news comes as Wisconsin taxpayers are receiving their property tax bills and learning just how much school property taxes went up as a result of the last state budget. The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance estimates school property taxes went up statewide six percent, in part the result of cuts in state aid.

Doyle would tie the increased funding to a set of reforms in each school district, including whether the insurance for teachers is competitively bid. Once the federal funding dries up, then those districts would be able to raise property taxes above and beyond the revenue caps currently in place. So, ironically, by responding to the taxpayers and being fiscally responsible, the school districts may get the power to punish taxpayers even more.

Other requirements for the increased funding for some school districts would include cooperating with each other on union contract negotiations, increase mentoring, hiring math and reading “coaches,” and conducting more teacher evaluations.

Whether Johnny’s reading or math skills improve? Not a criteriea for increased funds.

Doyle’s proposal would put an end to the education funding structure that has put some check on local property taxes since 1994. Then, Governor Thompson and the legislature created a plan for state government to fund two-thirds of local education spending. In return, the local property taxes were “capped.” For 2009, the cap was just under three percent. Teacher salary increases were limited by the districts’ ability to make a Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) of three point eight percent.

The QEO was already removed as part of the last biennial budget.

The Wausau School District is already seeing the result of repealing the QEO, according to the Wausau Daily Herald. Negotiations with the district are at an impasse, heading to mediation, as the union is asking for salary increases of one point five percent above what the school district is offering, meaning some teachers would see increases of more than seven percent.

Meanwhile, the state is already failing to keep the two-thirds funding promise. Under Doyle’s last state budget, the state’s percentage of K-12 education spending dropped to 62.6 percent.

To make matters worse, the state used $2.2 billion in federal stimulus money to plug existing budget holes. The state will need to either make cuts or raise taxes to replace that money.

Now the state is looking at the “Race to the Top” money to create more obligations on property taxpayers.

Wisconsin taxpayers may soon realize we can’t afford any more “free” money from the federal government.

But worse than the short-term increase in tax obligations will be the unraveling of the consensus that has managed to hold Wisconsin education spending and Wisconsin property taxes in check.

Sadly, this year’s property tax increases may soon look like the good old days.

By James Wigderson
Special Perspective for the MacIver Institute