Wisconsin lawmakers hope to resurrect the Energy Efficiency Exemption for School Districts and make it permanent. Schools spent over $1.3 billion from 2009-2018 that wasn't subject to spending caps or voter referendums. #WIright Click To Tweet
MacIver News Service | Oct. 21, 2019
By Bill Osmulski
Wisconsin school districts could soon be unleashed to spend as much as they want without going to referendum – as long as it’s in the name of energy efficiency.
A group of 12 Republican and 2 Democrat state lawmakers plan to bring back the Energy Efficiency Exemption (EEE), which existed from 2009 to 2018. That program allowed districts to disregard their revenue limits for “green” projects. School districts and the Department of Public Instruction applied a very broad interpretation of what qualified.
The EEE funded new buses, roofs, boilers, HVACs, lighting fixtures, kitchen equipment, pool upgrades, fire alarm systems, parking lots, and masonry repairs. Green Lake even used the exemption to remodel its kitchen and buy new computers.
In total, school districts spent over $1.3 billion through the EEE from 2009 to 2018, according to the Department of Public Instruction. Almost half of that spending ($603.7 million) was approved during the final year of the program. Some issued bonds with debt service payments for the next 20 years.
All that extra green spending came directly from property taxpayers without ever going to referendum. That’s why lawmakers decided to shut down the program in the 2017 budget.
Unfortunately, dozens of school districts saw this as an opportunity to pass large building and operating referendums without taxpayers noticing. As the higher mill rates tied the EEE ended, they were seamlessly replaced with the higher mill rates tied to the newly passed referendums. School district officials called this a “levy shelf” or “levy opportunity.”
How the #Edgerton School District plans to divert a massive tax cut into $40.6 million in new referendum spending – hoping taxpayers never know the difference. pic.twitter.com/KSzuAa6JJh
— Bill Osmulski ن (@bosmulski) October 15, 2018
Senators Luther Olson (R-Ripon), Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), Mark Miller (D-Monona), Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) are sponsoring SB 494, which would bring back the EEE and make it permanent.
The bill is scheduled for a public hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.