“Pennies” Add up to Huge Tax Hike Without Accountability

“Are there any Tea Partiers here?” Thomas Beebe asked. A couple of pairs of eyes looked right at me. What can I say? When there’s a gathering of people trying to figure out how to raise taxes, I tend to stick out. 

Twenty-two parents gathered Saturday morning to hear a presentation by Beebe on the “Penny for Kids” plan. Beebe is the executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES), an organization that advocates for increased taxes to fund Wisconsin’s public schools. The Penny for Kids plan is a proposal to raise Wisconsin’s sales tax from five to six cents on the dollar (a twenty percent hike) to fund the state’s public schools, nearly a billion dollar increase in state taxes.

Michael Mathias, a former candidate for school board, and Ted Kraig, a former Democratic candidate for State Assembly and an employee of WEAC Council #10, organized the meeting at the MPS Administration Building’s auditorium with the assistance of school board member Peter Blewett.  

Blewett said the purpose of the meeting was to create a group of parents who would be active on school funding issues and to help “make sure the right people get to Madison.” Blewett said to the audience that there were limits on what the school board can do to increase funding, saying the answer to MPS’s funding problems were with the state. 

Beebe said the problems that MPS was facing regarding funding were many of the same problems at school districts all over the state. For example, in the district where Beebe sits on the school board the district has created a task force to study the cuts that will be required with reduced state aid. He admitted to the audience that the task force is “just a formality” before going to referendum. The residents of his district will be thrilled to hear that. 

Beebe blamed the current school aid equalization formula that distributes aid based on property value per student. He said it’s “equalization that isn’t equalizing” when a comparison is done of districts based on income. 

He also said the state’s revenue cap on local districts was part of the funding problem, too. The combination of state aid and local property taxes are limited to 2.1%. WAES estimates the mean annual increase of the “cost to continue” of the current levels of education services is really 4.2%. Even that would not be enough compared to the “adequacy model” of school funding supported by WAES. 

Beebe also said the problems local school districts faced are the result of what he said was “the two-thirds funding” myth.  

The state of Wisconsin under former Governor Tommy Thompson put in the revenue caps with a promise that the state would provide two-thirds of the funding for local schools.  Under Governor Jim Doyle, that percentage has dwindled to 62.6 percent. 

Beebe said the number is even lower at 49 percent. WAES calculated the amount of school funding by excluding $900 million in school levy credits.  

The Penny for Kids tax increase is meant to address in the short term what Beebe said was a school funding crisis. Beebe said to the audience, “Hell yes, I’m proposing we raise taxes.”

Do not be under any illusions that the proposal is to offer any property tax relief. According to a chart Beebe provided, the increased sales tax would raise $856 million. I confirmed with Beebe after the meeting that the money is not intended to be property tax relief but an increase in state funding. 

Even if the legislature passed the Penny for Kids, WAES would be back asking for more money for their “adequacy model” of school funding. The Penny for Kids is only considered a stop-gap measure. 

When an audience member asked Beebe if there was any evidence that taxpayers would be willing to support higher taxes to fund schools. Beebe conceded that any evidence he had was anecdotal. After asking if there any Tea Partiers in the room, he said that he thought even members of the Tea Party movement would be willing to support more money for the schools but they aren’t willing to trust the legislature with the extra money. 

Beebe should attend a few Tea Party rallies. While he’s correct that they would not trust the legislature with more money, they understand that Wisconsin can’t tax its way out of its current financial mess. 

When it came time to discuss how such a plan could be implemented, reality intruded. Beebe said the Penny for Kids did not have one member of the legislature willing to be the author of such a bill. He said WAES thought that one member was willing, but backed out under pressure from leadership in the Democratic Party. 

Blewett told the audience he will be introducing a resolution in his committee to have the school board in Milwaukee go on record as supporting such a plan, but that it would have to wait until after the district’s budget is completed. 

If Beebe wants to understand why he might be finding it so hard to find legislators who would support nearly a billion dollar tax increase, it’s because the legislature just raised taxes by $5 billion and there is still a gap in the state budget. As one audience member pointed out, the state is broke, and they may have to look for a different solution. 

At one point in the presentation, Beebe complained that it isn’t the legislators’ job to lower taxes. However, when taxes and spending keep going up and the appetite of the government keeps growing, as Wisconsin becomes even more uncompetitive, it is the responsibility of the legislators to figure out how to bring the state’s finances under control without raising taxes. 

That is something the Tea Party activists understand, even if Beebe does not.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute