By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Forty-three state governments run lotteries. Some use lottery revenue to fund education, environmental protection or senior health care.
Wisconsin sends its lottery proceeds to the state’s homeowners in the form of a property tax credit.
And because poor people outspend wealthy people on lottery tickets, that tax credit makes Wisconsin’s lottery unique in the nation — a state-run system for transferring cash from the state’s poorest to its wealthiest residents.
Then-Gov. Tommy Thompson signed the lottery bill into law in 1987 and became the state’s first lottery player.
His ticket did not win, but Thompson did. Like other Wisconsin homeowners, the former governor and current U.S. Senate candidate has earned the lottery property tax credit on his primary residence every year since 1988. In that time, and despite years of budget fights, the state’s homeowners have received more than $3.1 billion in “property tax relief.”
Gov. Scott Walker received $76.79 for the lottery property tax credit last year, about 1 percent of his total property tax bill. Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Walker’s potential opponent in the gubernatorial race, received $100.23 last year. Other lawmakers’ credits include:
- Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau: $116.98
- Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon: $92.71
- Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona: $117.68
- Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha: $99.14
- Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch: $89.17
- Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma: $72.85
- Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett: $103.33
Funds for the property tax credit have averaged nearly a third of the lottery’s total revenue each year. In other words, for every dollar someone — typically someone poor — spends on Powerball, 31 cents goes back to Wisconsin homeowners — typically someone wealthier.
All Wisconsin owners of a primary residence are eligible to receive the state’s lottery property tax credit. But to receive it, they must apply.
There are no more steps.
Even with the extension, the state struggles to give away money. For years, the state mailed an annual announcement — a postcard asking homeowners eligible for the credit to check off a box to receive the rebate.
Response was so weak that the state turned over the job of giving away money to the counties.
Kenosha County treasurer Teri Jacobson said her office tries various approaches to make folks aware of the lottery credit.
“We put out an article in the paper every year reminding people to look at their bill,” Jacobson said. “We have a search set up on our website, so people can see if they got it (the year before). We send out press releases to local radio stations. Also, when people call with other questions about their property taxes, we ask them if they are getting it. We have a (lottery property tax credit) brochure out on our counter. We also talk to real estate professionals.”
“Still,” she said, “there are always a few who are like, ‘Oh I never knew.’”
Dane County treasurer Dave Worzala said his department engages in a similar ad campaign. In 2010, his office generated 14,000 names of homeowners eligible for the credit but not signed up.
“We sent out a postcard to those 14,000 people and said, ‘You may be eligible for the lottery credit,’” said Worzala. “We got around 2,000 people signed up.”
To be precise, the number was 2,470 Dane County homeowners, and that worked out to “about $247,000 that we wouldn’t have gotten in our community or homeowners would have paid that tax,” he said.
A survey of the state’s county treasurers finds those most likely to miss the tax credit include first-time homebuyers.
“We’re trying to be very proactive and communicate with people about it,” said Racine County treasurer Jane Nikolai. “Property taxes are a burden to everybody. We want them to receive the credit if they’re entitled to it.”