By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The Wisconsin Senate passed Gov. Scott Walker’s $100 million property tax cut proposal Tuesday with bipartisan support, even though Democrats complained it was more a political ploy than anything that would truly help people’s pocketbooks.
The bill is speeding through the Legislature so it can take effect on property tax bills mailed this December. The Assembly planned to pass it Thursday, just a week after Walker introduced it. Walker hopes to sign it into law Friday.
On average, the tax cut will reduce taxes on the typical home $13 this year and $20 next year, although the exact effect will vary widely statewide based on where a person lives and how much their home is valued. Even under the cut, property taxes are still projected to increase by $11 – from $2,943 to $2,954 – in two years for the median-valued $148,000 home.
Democratic opponents said the $100 million cut sounded good but would actually amount to little for most families and would only hurt the state’s budget.
“What we’re doing is trying to help the governor get elected,” said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville. “At the end of the day, that is what this bill is all about.”
Cullen was one of five Democrats who voted against the bill. The others were Sens. Bob Jauch of Poplar, John Lehman of Racine, and Fred Risser and Mark Miller, both of Madison. All 18 Republicans and 10 Democrats voted for it.
Republicans defended the tax cut as a significant reduction that will be welcomed across the state.
“Some might mock this being a relatively modest reduction in property taxes,” said Republican Rep. John Nygren, the Republican co-chair of the budget committee. Still, he said it was better for the state to give it back to taxpayers than spend it.
“I’m going to side on the side of taxpayers every single day and give it back to them,” Nygren said. “This is a prudent step.”
The Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to pass the bill.
Walker unveiled the property tax cut proposal last week, three days after Democrat Mary Burke announced her run for governor.
Burke, in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, said “no one can argue with a tax cut.” But Burke said she’s more concerned about a new report from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau showing that the state’s projected budget shortfall in 2015 will grow by 33 percent with passage of the property tax cut and other worker training bills Walker supports.
Even so, the projected $725 million structural deficit lawmakers would face at the beginning of the 2015 two-year budget cycle would be half or less of the shortfalls faced at the beginning of every budget going back to 1997. Last year, the budget began with a $146 million surplus but two years ago it began at $2.5 billion and grew to $3.6 billion.
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate described the tax cut as a political stunt designed to distract voters after Burke announced she would run against Walker.
“I don’t know anybody who is against property tax relief, but the reality is this is just – total political theater is what I would call it, you know for giving Wisconsin families an extra $1.08 a month and knowing a lot of people’s tax bills are still going to go up because of the local levy,” Tate said.
Under the property tax proposal, the $100 million would be funneled through the state aid formula for schools, which are largely funded from the state and local property tax revenue. But without a requisite increase in schools’ spending authority, the money would instead go toward lowering local property taxes.
A Fiscal Bureau analysis showed that taxpayers in some school districts around the state would be better off than others. The average increase in aid statewide is just under 1 percent. La Crosse would get $395,000 more, for a 1.4 percent increase, while Green Bay would see just a 0.6 percent increase, or about $829,000 more. Wausau would receive 0.8 percent, or $394,000 more, while Eau Claire would be just above the average at 1 percent or $590,000.
Associated Press writer M.L. Johnson also contributed to this report from Milwaukee.