Rebecca Kleefisch knows that some voters who might back the 2010 Republican ticket for governor distrust the media as a bunch of liberals. So the former TV anchor, and new GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, stresses she is a conservative committed to cutting taxes.
Perhaps to fire up the faithful, Kleefisch declared on her campaign website:
"The Wisconsin Legislature raised taxes more than $5 billion in 2009."
That’s a lot of dough.
And with Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson winning the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, it may be that much easier to tie the tax hike to the party’s candidate for governor, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
When we called and e-mailed the Kleefisch campaign, we were promised a response on where the $5 billion figure came from. We tried again the next day, but again got no reply. Finally, Kleefisch campaign spokeswoman Jeanne Tarantino referred us to the campaign of Scott Walker, the Republican nominee for governor.
Walker and Kleefisch are running as a ticket, she explained.
OK. But something didn’t smell right.
We rechecked the Kleefisch website and found that the Issues page -- which contained her claim about the $5 billion in tax increases -- had been taken down. Now, when you click on that section of Kleefisch’s home page, you’re redirected to the Issues section of Walker’s campaign site. That’s the only place on RebeccaForReal.com where you’re jettisoned to ScottWalker.org.
The switch was made, said Walker campaign spokeswoman Jill Bader, because Walker and Kleefisch "have a shared platform."
That gave us a sense, as we reached for the calculator, of where Kleefisch’s claim was heading.
Incidentally, Kleefisch gave the same quote about the $5 billion in new taxes to a website called ConservativeFeatures.com, according to a transcript of an interview. The transcript is still on that website.
So, on to the numbers. Don’t worry, it’s simple math.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the nonpartisan numbers cruncher of the state Legislature, said the Legislature raised taxes and fees twice in 2009. Kleefisch’s statement mentioned only taxes, but for simplicity we will include fees here. The hikes were done in a budget-adjustment bill approved in February and in the 2009-’11 state budget, adopted in June.
The total increases in taxes and fees break down like this:
- Budget-adjustment bill: $1.22 billion. That included $290.4 million in tax increases, primarily through corporate income and franchise tax "combined reporting," plus $925.2 million from a new assessment on hospital patient revenues.
- Budget bill: $1.92 billion. That included boosts of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes on cigarettes, high-income earners and capital gains investments.
That tallies up to $3.14 billion.
A hefty sum, to be sure. But roughly a couple billion shy of Kleefisch’s claim.
The Walker campaign’s policy director, Ryan Murray, defended Kleefisch’s statement. He agreed that the two major actions taken by the Legislature in 2009 raised taxes and fees by $3.14 billion. But, to get past the $5 billion threshold, Murray added a $1.5 billion boost in net property taxes and $130.4 million more from "enhanced collection measures."
Let’s take those one at a time.
Property taxes: Those levies are set by local taxing bodies, such as the city and the county, not the Legislature. Murray conceded that fact. However, he said property taxes should be added toward the $5 billion total because action by the Legislature, such as cutting aid to schools, affects what happens to property taxes.
The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonprofit research organization, said the 2009-’11 state budget would put pressure on school property tax levies because, compared with 2008-’09, state aid would be 2.7 percent lower in the first year of the budget and 2.5 percent lower in the second. But state legislative action is only one of many factors that bear on property taxes; and it’s still the case that local officials, not the Legislature, ultimately decide how high to set the levy.
Enhanced collection measures: These steps include hiring 30 more state Department of Revenue employees for "enhanced enforcement of current tax laws." Said Murray: "This is just the government hassling people to pay more taxes." It is true that the measures, if successful, will bring more dollars into state coffers. But there’s no tax increase levied on residents. If anything, the action would lighten the load on those who are already paying up.
Where does that leave us?
In emphasizing that taxes are too high, Kleefish overstated by nearly $2 billion how much taxes were raised in 2009 by the Legislature and Gov. Jim Doyle. That’s no rounding error. The Walker-Kleefisch campaign, in an attempt to get past the $5 billion threshold Kleefisch set, adds in property taxes, which are ultimately set at the local level, and then throws in redoubled efforts to collect existing taxes. We rate Kleefish’s statement False.