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Support education, lower property taxes, citizens say


Nearly 300 people pack into a room in La Crosse to discuss the state's future at the first in a series of Wisconsin Way community forums.



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La Crosse teacher Deb Klaeser discusses health care at the Wisconsin Way forum. Click arrow to view video.

Nearly 300 participants in the first Wisconsin Way community forum made it clear Wednesday (October 10, 2007) that they strongly support quality education but are also concerned about the impact of rising property taxes on both their personal finances and the ability of their communities to thrive economically.

Residents of the La Crosse area packed a large meeting room in the Onalaska Omni Center to share perspectives and ideas on how Wisconsin can continue to provide quality government services while reducing the property tax burden.

After more than an hour of listening to comments, moderator James B. Wood helped sum up some of the main messages by repeating what he heard and asking the audience to raise their hands if they agreed. Participants overwhelming agreed that they support quality education and that education is an investment that leads to economic development, jobs and community strength. They also agreed that we must maintain and improve our infrastructure, including roads. At the same time, they strongly agreed with the statement that we must do something about property taxes.

The forum was the first in a series of 12 planned throughout the state through December 6 by a coalition of partners who developed the Wisconsin Way. The concept of the Wisconsin Way is to engage Wisconsin citizens in a constructive, solution-oriented conversation about what we can do to make Wisconsin taxes fairer and reduce the property tax burden without sacrificing the quality of public services that have made Wisconsin a special place to live and work.

The key Wisconsin Way coalition partners include WEAC, the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Wisconsin Realtors Association, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, and Wood Communications Group.

Participants offered a wide range of perspectives and suggestions, ranging from special property tax breaks for the elderly to raising revenues through the legalization of marijuana.

“Make sure, first and foremost, our K-12 (education system) is taken care of,” said one participant, echoing a sentiment expressed repeatedly by others as well.

“We need an educated citizenry. We need to be a state that supports education,” said another.

But another participant – a 74-year-old farmer – said “property taxes have gotten out of hand” and he was afraid he would lose his dairy farm as a result.

De Soto teacher Curt Christensen said the problem is with the way our tax system is structured. In the last 20 years, through exemptions and other changes, much of the property and income tax burden has shifted from businesses to homeowners and individuals, he said. “I’d like to see us go back to a better balanced tax system,” he said.

State Representative Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) said that under the current structure, people are being taxed out of their homes. Collaboration and partnership are effective strategies for seeking solutions, she said.

Steve Gores, of Citizens for Responsible Government, La Crosse County, said something must be done about property taxes if the area is going to be able to attract a growing population and remain competitive. But that doesn’t mean you have to eliminate government services, he said. “Better services or lower taxes is a false choice,” he said.

Tomah High School junior Kayla VanCleave said policy-makers should include high school students in the conversation. “We have just as many insights as anyone else,” she said. Then, referring to an earlier comment that small class sizes don’t make any difference in determining a student’s success, she said, “I’ve been in a small classroom and I’ve been in a large classroom, and I can tell you there is a difference,” a comment that drew strong applause from the audience, which included many educators.

In some of the other comments, participants said we should:

  • Have a more representative democracy; career politicians are out of touch; we should implement term limits.
  • Do more to support entrepreneurship.
  • Provide more support to farmers.
  • Provide tax breaks for the elderly; for example, cut their property taxes in half at age 65.
  • Explore making greater use of alternatives to costly prisons for non-violent criminals.
  • Encourage special interest groups to “back off” from pressuring politicians.
  • Support a living wage for low-income residents.
  • Support K-12 and higher education institutions that “move people into jobs.”
  • Ask property-exempt organizations to voluntarily pay money in lieu of property taxes. Half the property in La Crosse is tax-exempt, according to one speaker.
  • Provide universal health care.
  • Create more sidewalks and bike-friendly roads to reduce our reliance on automobiles and improve the environment.
  • End political polarization and gridlock.
  • Get control of health care costs (a comment from a business person).
  • Institute a county-wide assessment system to reduce inequities in property tax bills between communities.
  • Charge highway tolls so that Illinois residents have to pay to use our roads too.
  • Provide a more efficient, inexpensive public transportation system.

In wrapping up the forum, Wood said it was clear that residents want quality public services, including education, but also want lower property taxes. The state is caught between an escalating demand for services and infrastructure on the one hand and a shrinking tax base and tax capacity on the other.

He said the purpose of the Wisconsin Way is to hear from citizens how they believe we can address that issue. At least part of the answer, he said, seems to be through new sources of revenue and economic growth. And the key to sparking that growth is “an investment in education.” Education, he noted, leads to higher incomes and job growth, which increase tax revenues.

Wood noted that Wisconsin is losing its college-educated students to other states and, as a result, Wisconsin’s per-capita income is about $4,000 behind that of Minnesota’s. Wisconsin ranks 27th in the nation in terms of citizens with bachelor degrees, and less than 4% of our population is employed in the growing high-technology job industry. Had we stayed competitive with Minnesota in terms of salaries, he said, Wisconsin’s tax base would be nearly $13 billion a year larger than it is now.

Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association, said, “When we look at these numbers, we’re frightened” for the future of the state. And that, he said, is why the Wisconsin Way was developed – to solicit the opinions of citizens throughout the state to develop solutions. Citizens, he said, are the people who can solve these problems because they best understand them and because “you care about this state.”

After the forums are completed in December, Wisconsin Way organizers will review the input from throughout the state and use it to develop an agenda for solving the state’s tax problems, Wood said. That agenda will eventually be presented to the Legislature.

The next Wisconsin Way community forum is October 15 in Wausau. For the complete forum schedule and background on the Wisconsin Way, visit the WEAC Wisconsin Way page at www.weac.org/wisconsinway.

Posted October 11, 2007

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