With its largest Republican majority in decades — momentum is growing behind what could amount to more significant changes to the way Wisconsin taxes its residents, including an effort to move the state toward a flat income tax and a proposal to eliminate the personal property tax.
Todd Berry, a longtime tax policy analyst and president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, is “not inclined to predict” any major changes to the way the state raises revenue. A proposal to repeal the personal property tax would require an adjustment in priorities. Moving to a flat tax requires more support than currently exists. Even a significant change in transportation funding — the largest source of discord among lawmakers and the governor during the budget process this year — is unlikely, he said.
What is significant in the current climate, Berry said, is that so much of the push for major tax reform is coming from lawmakers, particularly from a group of trained accountants known as the “CPA Caucus.”
The four-member group is composed of three certified public accountants — Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield. Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview, is a financial adviser. Marklein and Kooyenga both sit on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which reviews, refines and rewrites the state budget after it is introduced by the governor.
The accountant-lawmakers have led the charge on tax policy changes large and small: eliminating 18 tax credits in three years, reducing the number of income tax brackets, reducing the number of people required to pay the alternative minimum tax and reducing the so-called “marriage penalty.”
Kooyenga, a U.S. Army Reservist and potential U.S. Senate candidate with a penchant for quoting the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” said his goal is to pull back on efforts made by politicians to “move levers” and control behavior through tax policy.
“I’m a firm believer that there should be less power in Madison and less power in D.C. And one of the ways that even Republicans have tried to assert their power is by creating mechanisms in the tax code to try to get people to do what they want to do,” Kooyenga said. “And I think that people should decide what they want to do and try to minimize the government trying to penalize or reward certain actions.”
The personal property tax, implemented in the early days of Wisconsin, when most of its governmental revenue came from property taxes, began as a tax on items like livestock, furniture, jewelry and vehicles. Its property tax counterpart — real property — covers land and buildings.
The list of exemptions to the personal property tax has grown to include, among other items, clothing, personal items, stocks and bonds, vehicles, farm and manufacturing machinery and business computers. The tax now applies, in general, to furniture, equipment, machinery and watercraft owned by businesses.
According to an analysis by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, personal property has accounted for between 2.2 and 2.6 percent of the state’s property tax base since 2005. Compared to the 40 other states with some form of a personal property tax, Wisconsin taxes less than most, but more than most of its neighbors.
While the personal property tax brings in a relatively small sum compared to other taxes, the state Department of Revenue estimates eliminating it would result in a loss of about $261 million per year in funding for schools and local governments. That’s based on a proposal introduced in April by Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford.
Depending on the proposal, the money would either be gone or accounted for with an increase to real property taxes — paid by homeowners and business owners, rather than only business owners, as it is currently.
Kooyenga said in an interview that his plan would reclassify some personal property items as real property, putting the fiscal impact below $240 million. It would also eliminate and reduce some tax credits.
“We would be replacing (the revenue),” Kooyenga said.