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Tax politics affect campaigns

By Matt Pommer

Gov. Jim Doyle wants a constitutional amendment to give the Legislature more freedom on taxes, especially the property tax.

The idea has the potential to refocus the tax debate during the 2010 election campaign and open the door to a future Legislature exempting a portion of a home’s value from the property tax. In turn, that could mean higher property taxes for business and industry. The Wisconsin Constitution now calls for property tax uniformity, except for agriculture and undeveloped land.

A similar constitutional amendment was rejected in April 1989. Wisconsin has used income tax credits to ease property tax burdens, but that is usually not remembered when the property tax bill arrives.

A heavily business-backed media blitz was a key factor in the defeat of the amendment in 1989, especially in eastern parts of the state. The amendment was popular in most of the counties in western Wisconsin where citizens knew Minnesota, without uniformity, had lower property taxes.

The constitutional amendment idea could let Democrats talk about helping homeowners. Many polls have shown the property tax is the most hated of the Wisconsin taxes.

Scott Walker, the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, has stressed the idea of rolling back personal income taxes on high-income citizens and for corporate tax changes. He suggests those tax measures will help create new jobs and bring prosperity to the state.

But the measures Walker would like to roll back were signed into law by Doyle last year to help ease the state’s financial crunch. Republicans think higher taxes are unpopular and they want to paint any and every Democratic candidate as a “Doyle Democrat.”

Jittery Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, may not want to follow Doyle’s constitutional amendment idea. Doyle is a lame duck, having decided not to seek re-election.

But it’s a nifty political idea. Critics could contend it won’t have any immediate effect. The critics will say uniformity is important and fair, but they won’t lower any homeowner’s bill.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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