Property taxes, once heralded as a means to soak the landed aristocracy of inherited wealth, are the sworn enemy of contemporary Wisconsin political campaigns. Candidates at the local and state level frequently promise to do whatever they can to lower property taxes, which have historically been a chief revenue source for public schools.
The anti-property tax politicking plays out in policy as well as platforms. As Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) explained to me, policies such as the state's commitment to fund 2/3 of the cost of public education, were an attempt to "reign in the high property taxes" that the property boom of the 1980's and 90's brought on. "We're still in the top five nationwide in property tax levy," he said.
Now in the campaign for governor, both candidates are skewing their records on property taxes as well as attempting to present strong anti-tax credentials in their respective budgets.
Tom Barrett recently unveiled a budget for the city of Milwaukee that allows for a miniscule decrease in property taxes. Scott Walker's county budget is eerily similar. Introducing a budget with a $1 million decrease in the property tax levy for a county of nearly a million people, Walker was proud to announce his .1000 batting average on introducing budgets that don't raise taxes regardless of whether they pass.
Both candidates have also misled on their past property tax records. It's hard to determine who Walker is referencing when he says "we held the line on taxes," but it certainly isn't Milwaukee County, which has raised the property tax levy every year since Walker took office. President Obama found the same lingo appropriate for Barrett's record a claim that Politifact found to be "barely true." Barrett has raised property taxes in the past to close budget gaps, a fact he neglects when he compares his record of "smart cuts" to the $400 million of debt Walker used to finance the county's pension obligations.
The only encouraging aspect of this race's tax rhetoric is Barrett's criticism of Walker's pledge to cut taxes $1.8 billion on the wealthiest incomes in Wisconsin. Such a promise is either misleading or a signal of impending fiscal disaster in the state. Actually, you want to know what the surest result of decreased income taxes at the state level? Higher property taxes at the local level.