Marinette Joint Finance (copy) (copy)

The state's portion of Wisconsin's property tax would be eliminated under a measure approved Thursday by the state's budget-writing committee.

PHOTO BY JESSIE OPOIEN

The state's portion of Wisconsin's property tax revenue would be eliminated under a measure approved Thursday by the state's budget-writing committee.

The Republican-led Joint Finance Committee voted to sunset the forestry mill tax, which would amount to a reduction of about $180 million over the two-year budget period. 

While most property taxes are levied by local governments and school districts, the state's portion — up to 20 cents per $1,000 of property value, but currently set at about 17 cents — goes to fund the acquisition, preservation and development of forests in the state.

Under the proposal, the forestry account would receive funding from the state's general fund rather than the specified tax. But critics argue that puts the forestry fund in competition with other areas funded by general purpose revenue, like schools and health care.

Democrats on the committee also said they don't trust that the lawmakers in the Republican majority will continue to direct GPR funding to the forestry account in the future.

"Maybe we trust them in this budget," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. "The budgets moving forward, no."

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said the decision represents a move to make forestry less of a priority in the state, and only results in minimal savings for taxpayers. Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she is "very sad" about the vote.

"I don’t want us to put these things … on the back burner and make them compete against other things that are also a priority," Taylor said.

The estimated savings for the owner of a median-valued home would be between $25 and $30, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, argued that although the savings are small, the chance to eliminate an entire tax is one lawmakers shouldn't pass up.

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"Any steps we can take to reduce the burden for our constituents is a positive thing," argued committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. 

Nygren argued that while forestry is a priority in Wisconsin, it shouldn't be more of priority than any other area of the state budget. 

"There will be a lot of money left to take care of the needs of forestry," said co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

The forestry mill tax accounted for about 75 percent of the $111 million in revenues in the conservation fund's forestry account in 2015-16. Other sources of funding included the sale of timber on state forest lands and camping and entrance fees at state forests.

The state Council of Forestry voted in May to oppose the proposal, instead recommending an audit of the fund.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.