According to Wisconsin's Department of Revenue, property taxes on homes in the state of Wisconsin have decreased for the first time in more than a decade.
Governor Scott Walker's pledge to balance the budget without raising taxes was a key plank of his 2010 campaign, and his fulfillment of that pledge will be a major campaign theme leading up to the June 5 recall election. “Our reforms have reversed a decade of property tax increases from previous administrations,” Walker said in a statement on Monday. “For the first time in over ten years, the average property taxpayer will have more money in his or her pocket than the year before.” Walker's office noted that property taxes had risen by 43 percent since 1998, and "the average homeowner would have paid an additional $700 over the biennium" without the 2011 budget reforms.
The property tax decrease is largely attributable to a reduction in state spending on local school districts, according to Todd Berry of the non-partisan Wisconsin Taxpayers' Alliance.
"On average, property taxes went down one percent for schools," Berry tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "That basically held everything close to flat." Although Milwaukee, Madison, and some other districts will see property taxes increase this year, property tax cuts throughout the rest of the state--cuts made possible by Walker's reforms--will offset the increases. (Berry notes that although the median home property tax declined 0.4%, all property taxes increased 0.2%. But 0.2% is still well below the rate of inflation.)
In order to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit, Walker reduced state aid to school districts--the biggest part of the state budget--by about $900 million. Walker also limited collective bargaining so that local school districts could absorb the cuts by requiring teachers to contribute more for their benefits. The two leading Democrats vying to replace Walker have refused to say how they would have balanced Wisconsin's budget.
At a press conference today, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, the frontrunner in the Democrats' gubernatorial primary, was asked about the property tax news. He didn't dispute the report that property taxes had decreased statewide. But, Barrett told reporters, "I can tell you here in the City of Milwaukee, our school taxes went up. And they went up primarily because of the funding of the school choice program.”
Barrett did not mention, however, that Milwaukee schools are currently operating under a collective bargaining agreement that was locked in prior to Walker's reforms. Collective bargaining effectively gives the Milwaukee teachers' union the power to choose layoffs and higher taxes over cuts to their benefits.
On April 4, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that after "robust discussions and three days of voting, members of the Milwaukee teachers union have rejected by nearly a 3-to-2 margin a proposal to contribute about 2.6% of their salary to Milwaukee Public Schools next year to help reduce burgeoning class sizes."