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Policy Forum: Wis. tax bills $1.1B higher owing to recent school referendums

By: Nate Beck, [email protected]//July 28, 2021//

Policy Forum: Wis. tax bills $1.1B higher owing to recent school referendums

By: Nate Beck, [email protected]//July 28, 2021//

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Recent school referendums pushed Wisconsin property taxes $1.1 billion higher in December 2020 than they otherwise would have been, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

School districts throughout the state have gone to voters at historic rates in recent years to get permission to raise taxes to undertake construction projects or increase their operating revenue. The voters in nearly 70% of Wisconsin school districts have approved a referendum since 2016, according to the policy forum. The flurry of referendums has come as state lawmakers have mostly kept school tax levies tightly capped.

“Over the past decade, state leaders have kept tight limits on local government and school district property taxes, leaving local leaders to turn to exceptions in the law such as voter referenda and debt to cover their rising costs,” according to the policy forum.

Voters disregarded partisanship to pass referendums at the second-highest rate in state history during last November’s election, following several election cycles that also had high approval rates. During the latest election in April, however, only about 60% of the referendum questions were passed.

School referendums have led to districts approving billions worth of new construction projects over the past several years. In 2018, voters approved more than $2 billion in school spending. Voters also signed off on more than $700 million in school construction projects during last November’s election.

The result of so many successful school referendums has been higher property taxes, according to the policy forum. School tax levies rose $136.1 million from last year to this year because of the referendums, according to data the Policy Forum cited from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

In December , Wisconsin property taxpayers were billed $735.7 million to cover payments on debt for new construction projects and renovations approved through referendums. Taxpayers, meanwhile, paid $216.2 million more in property taxes because of operating referendums. And, for many of the same reasons, property taxes were $1.1 billion higher in total late last year.

Although the state’s next biennial budgets devotes $408 million to general school aids, it does not go so far as to raise districts’ revenue limits — a policy consistent with the state’s attempts for more than a decade to limit the local property tax burden. That’s left school districts and local government few options to raise revenue besides issuing more debt or seeking approval from voters to raise taxes.

The policy forum suggests that local governments and school districts could use part of the COVID-19 aid they’ve received from the federal government to pay for construction projects, instead of financing them with debt.

“Some may feel that placing the decision to raise property taxes in the hands of voters is the appropriate approach,” according to the Policy Forum. “Others may worry that the limits exacerbate inequities between wealthy and poor communities, particularly if no allowance is made for inflation.”


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