The same discord over taxes that we see among Republicans in Congress is taking place in the Wisconsin Legislature.
On Wednesday morning I wrote that some moderates in the state Senate, such as Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, are suggesting the Legislature authorize increased spending on K-12 education at the local level by allowing school districts to increase property taxes.
Olsen's idea is to restore some of the cuts made in the last legislative session, when Republicans imposed a 5.5 percent decrease (or roughly $550 per student) in the revenue limits for school districts. Olsen would like to raise the limits by roughly $200 — going about half way towards restoring the levy limit to pre-Walker levels.
That was apparently news to Rep. Steve Nass, R-Town of La Grange, who lashed out later Wednesday in a press release to Assembly Republican leadership after reading the article.
“The last time the Assembly Republican majority failed to stop tax increases was 2007,” he warns. “The voters punished that failure on taxes by giving us the minority status after the 2008 election.”
Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen says any suggestion that property taxes could go up sends the wrong message to taxpayers, as well as to school districts.
“Statements like Luther’s are taken very seriously by school district administrators,” he says. “That $200 figure is now a target that every school administrator is going to be shooting for. That’s the problem, it builds up hope.”
A spokesperson for Olsen said the senator had no comment in response.
Although some insiders shrugged off Nass' outburst (he's gained a reputation for inflammatory statements), they acknowledge it represents a contentious debate that will likely take place within the GOP caucus over spending in the coming months. While many Republicans say they will support increased state spending on education, many of the most fiscally conservative members bristle at suggestions that school districts need the ability to raise more money.
"The (revenue limits) were put in pretty tight but we gave them other tools to use," says Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, referring to the near-elimination of collective bargaining for school district employees, as well as mandates that employees pick up a larger share of their health insurance and pension.
Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, who sits on the Joint Finance Committee with Strachota, echoed that logic.
"Districts are creatively implementing changes that will help them keep costs under control," he wrote in an email. "I would be surprised to see a return to large annual increases in the revenue limit for all schools."
Incoming state Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, says she hopes both parties can get behind increased funding for schools. She is nevertheless skeptical.
“It’s hard to move forward on addressing it when so many Republicans have taken pledges not to raise taxes," she says.
It does not appear leadership has taken a position on revenue limits.
“At this juncture, it isn’t beneficial to the process to get into hypotheticals," says Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. "We’ll get a better view of the landscape when Governor Walker presents his budget proposal in February.”
Correction: The article has been corrected to reflect the fact that a reduction in the levy limit by 5.5 percent is equal to roughly $550 per student, not $250 per student.