Wisconsin’s ‘deep state’

The political education of Americans since the 2016 presidential election now includes the term “deep state,” defined as “a body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy.”

It turns out Gov. Scott Walker thinks Wisconsin has its own “deep state.” Right Wisconsin reports:

It’s a line item on local property tax bills that few Wisconsinites notice. But Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate the state property tax, or forestry tax, has become a contentious issue within his own Republican Party. As Christian Schneider explained at JSonline.com back in March, the state property tax is a flat tax so revenues rise and fall with property values around the state. Officials then, in essence, find things on which to spend the revenue.

It’s much like the old joke where the potential buyer of a used car asks the seller “how much do you want for the car?” and the seller responds, “how much do you have?” How much is spent is determined largely by how much is generated, not by any justification of the purchases made. This has led to some calling the forestry revenue “a slush fund.”

Under Walker’s plan, the items the money is currently spent on would still be funded. The forestry account would be moved to the general fund, where things like land purchases would have to be justified. Eliminating such a tax would appear to be a Republican slam dunk; property taxes are inherently unpopular and the nature of the forestry tax flies in the face of conservative thinking on taxes. Yet some GOP lawmakers are balking. Walker told Media Trackers there are a couple of reasons for that:

“There are two specific issues: one…there are some, particularly in areas where forestry is an exceptionally big part of the economy, who don’t want it to go away because they think it’s a locked in set amount of money…We’ll continue to support forestry without a separate property tax. So that’s one area of concern and I think we can address that.

The other one, candidly, comes from some of the bureaucrats that serve the state legislature. They’re telling them, if you get rid of this you permanently lose a revenue source and if things turn the way they were seven, eight years ago, the money won’t be there. I fully concede that.  I think as Republicans our mission is to reform government, make it more efficient, more effective, more accountable and in turn lower, not raise the tax burden on the hardworking people of this state. So I do want to eliminate the revenue source.

I do think it is good to provide not just one time, but permanent property tax relief. So I confess that is my motive. I can get why bureaucrats would feel that. They’re just looking out for future budgets. But I think the way we take care of future budget is to do things that continue to grow the economy in the state, put more people to work…and that will bring more revenue into the state budget, not higher amounts of taxation.”

It’s not just bureaucrats who are concerned. Foresters told Wisconsin Public Radio they’re unconvinced their industry will continue to see the money if the account is moved to the general fund, despite Walker’s assurances:

“This would mean that forestry would have to line up with schools and with transportation and with health care and all the other important needs that are funded with general revenue,” said Fred Clark, executive director of the Forest Stewards Guild.

The programs are fully funded in the 2017-19 proposal from the governor, but Clark expressed concern they could be cut in future budgets.

“There’s no guarantee that the level of funding that’s provided today would be sustained,” Clark said

Supporters argue that Clark’s concerns notwithstanding, that’s how all state spending should work: justify the purchase and then get the money. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the forestry tax was about $26 on 2016 property tax bills.

Clark, by the way, is the former state representative who tried and failed to defeat Sen. Luther Olsen (R–Ripon) in Recallarama. Of course an ex-state legislator would oppose having to “line up with schools and with transportation and with health care and all the other important needs that are funded with general revenue,” because the last thing liberals want is to be required to set spending priorities.

I think Walker is correct. The bureaucracy of Wisconsin is far more powerful than in most states. This was where the evil known as administrative law came into being — bureaucrats’ ability to decide what the law is without the Legislature’s specific approval. The opposition to reducing our Tax Hell status comes not just from Democrats, but from those who get government paychecks. It’s too bad Walker doesn’t see the solution to that — eliminate government positions.

 

 

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