Yesterday, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue released data showing that the property tax bill for the median home in the state had decreased for the first time in over a decade. While Governor Scott Walker was heralding the news, the two leading Democrats vying to replace him in the June 5 recall election were attacking the property tax cap Walker signed into law last year:

Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk would also seek to remove tight caps on local property taxes approved by Walker and GOP lawmakers in the state budget in June. A spokesman for her primary opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, also criticized the caps Monday, though he stopped short of promising to loosen them. Because of those caps, the Walker administration said Monday, statewide property taxes for the median-valued home fell slightly, by 0.4%, in 2011.

In Dane County, "we didn't need a (property tax) mandate, and citizens should be the ones who hold their elected officials accountable for spending. That's what I did as a frugal county executive . . . in my landmark, self-created goal of holding spending to the level of population and inflation," Falk said in a statement. [...]

Barrett campaign spokesman Phil Walzak said as governor, Barrett would work with local governments to make investments that would help create jobs in their areas.

"Of course controlling tax increases will be a priority. But Walker's caps are absolute and draconian. They don't account for inflation adjustments, or allow adjustments for real economic growth," Walzak said in a statement.

Walker's caps did indeed prevent property taxes from going up for the first time in 12 years. But the caps are far from "absolute and draconian" as Barrett's campaign insists. In reality, Walker's property tax cap enhanced local control.
Prior to passage of the 2011 budget, the school revenue cap grew by $200 to $275 per pupil per year, according to Dale Knapp, director of research at the Wisconsin Taxpayers' Alliance. "There was sort of this automatic increase that the state would set and it would go up each year," Knapp tells me. In order to balance the budget, Walker cut state aid per pupil by $500 and gave local school districts the power to make up for those cuts by requiring teachers to pay more for their benefits.

The state law no longer imposes automatic spending and tax increases, but local school districts still have the power to exceed the cap if voters decide to do so via referendum. Just two weeks ago, referenda to raise school taxes were held in 29 different Wisconsin municipalities, and 21 of the initiatives were approved by voters.

So what does democracy really look like? Voters excercising the power to approve or deny tax increases in their local communities? Or a state law that imposes automatic annual tax increases?

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