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Keep the cap to guarantee real local control

By   /   February 22, 2013  /   No Comments

By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Property tax revenue caps got Governing magazine asking: Is local control merely “lip service” in Wisconsin?

University of Wisconsin public affairs professor Andrew Reschovsky thinks so. Local taxing entities should have more control than state taxing entities when it comes to state-imposed revenue caps, which turn 20 this year.

“We pay a lot of lip service to local control. You would think that core to local control would be the ability of local taxpayers to make decisions about how much to spend,” Reschovsky told the magazine. “So why are we seeing state governments limiting the ability of local school districts?”

Reschovsky apparently takes the term “local control” quite literally. That is, how much control do local taxers have on taxpayer’s wallets.

Wisconsin’s revenue caps have given local taxpayers power over the purse.

Under the revenue caps, local taxpayers have a lot to say about their school boards’ spending.

Since 1993, state law has capped the amount school boards can tax. If they want more money, they have to ask taxpayers for it.

The Governing article nails the issue in one sentence, but for some reason walks over dollars to pick up dimes in the rest of the piece.

“It’s never been a popular policy with school boards, as it puts them in the uncomfortable position of having to formally ask residents for a property tax increase if they want to go above the cap,” the piece declares.

Yes. Asking taxpayers for their money should be as uncomfortable as possible. When it comes to spending other people’s money, the tendency is to spend more.

According to data from the state Department of Public Instruction, school boards across the state are asking taxpayers for more than $400 million in new debt issuance this year.

School boards also are asking to exceed local revenue limits by more than $100 million combined.

Instead of school board officials deciding to raise taxes at meetings hardly anyone attends, they have to ask for it. That’s called “direct democracy.”

Because the state will never propose voluntary contributions, it’s the best deal taxpayers can get.

Since the beginning of January 2008, voters have approved 114 referenda for project debt while turning down 91 others.

At an even higher approval rate over that time, voters have approved exceeding revenue limits on a non-recurring basis 116 times to 77 rejected.

In fact, the only referenda voters have turned down more than approved is for exceeding revenue caps on a recurring basis, with 24 approved to 41 rejected.

School boards, it appears, generally don’t like to ask for tax hikes.

If they had Reschovsky’s form of “local control” would that still be the case?

Contact Ryan Ekvall at rekvall@wisconsinreporter.com

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Ryan Ekvall uncovers government waste, fraud and abuse for Wisconsin Reporter. His work has appeared at Reason, Fox News and Human Events. Send Ryan a tip at rekvall@watchdog.org.