After Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed a $100 million measure that state officials said would shrink property tax bills by $33 over two years, top Democrats said it was too little bang for the buck.
Walker painted a much different picture when communicating with Wisconsin residents Oct. 25, 2013 through his regular email newsletter.
"This week, I signed a bill bringing $100 million in property tax relief to Wisconsin’s families, farmers, seniors, and small businesses," Walker’s e-update said. "With this bill, the typical Wisconsin homeowner will save approximately $680 over four years."
A recipient of the governor’s email wrote us saying he had tried in vain to find fiscal estimates that back up Walker’s claim and asking us to investigate.
So we did.
This turns on a commonly used benchmark: The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s annual estimates of the size of the property tax bill for the owner of a property at the median value statewide.
For example, under the policies in the 2013-’15 state budget, that tax bill was estimated at $2,974 on a $151,000 home.
We wondered: Since the fiscal bureau’s official savings forecast is the aforementioned $33 over two years, where does the governor’s claim of $680 come from?
Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster told us it’s from a hypothetical scenario.
The governor compared the median tax bill expected during each of his four years to what they would have looked like if one assumes the trend line from 2006 to 2010 under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle had continued into Walker’s term. (The median bill went up 8 percent in Doyle’s last term.)
So, the $680 is not actual money this median taxpayer "will save" on his or her property tax bill during the Walker years.
It’s based on the assumption that another governor, faced with the same deficit Walker inherited, would have continued to allow local governments to raise property taxes at that 8 percent clip over an additional four years.
Maybe, but maybe not.
Problems in analysis
One problem with this is that Walker strongly links the $680 "savings" not to some hypothetical thing -- but to something very concrete: the $100 million relief legislation.
It’s an even more bodacious claim, given that the $100 million in relief does not mean that the median tax bills will be lower in 2014 than in 2012, the period covered by the bill.
That’s because the budget approved back in June resulted in a net increase (1 percent) in the projected median property tax bill over two years. The subsequent $100 million in relief trimmed the size of that increase -- but the median bill still goes up slightly.
We’ve been down Hypothetical Road before with the governor.
In July 2011 we rated a very similar claim False. Walker said then that under his first two-year budget, "the average property taxpayer will save $700." Not only was he comparing real results to hypothetical results, we found, there was an obvious flaw in the hypothetical scenario that puffed up things in Walker’s favor.
In the current case, another problem is that Walker’s email to residents doesn’t disclose that the $680 figure is a hypothetical one.
When we asked Webster about this, she expressed frustration, saying that Walker and his office had disclosed in several other venues that the $680 number is based on a hypothetical scenario and made it clear that the savings is not due just to this 2013 legislation, but also to prior actions.
True, Walker did point out the hypothetical scenario at the Capitol news conference announcing the $100 million bill and displayed a large chart explaining it.
Same for two news releases the office sent out presenting the $680 figure in a broader context, linking it to "property tax controls" earlier in his term.
But even the governor’s press events and announcements of the $100 million relief law have reflected confusion over his message. The evidence is in the wildly divergent media coverage.
A Green Bay TV station said: "Depending on the value of your home, the average homeowner will save between $13 and $20 in December and $680 over the next 4 years."
A La Crosse TV station reported that Walker’s $100 million cut "will save homeowners about $680 over four years."
A Milwaukee TV station said the legislation is expected to save $680 million over four years.
None of those descriptions hit the mark.
Four-year bottom line
Walker did give one small clue in the e-update that his analysis wasn’t just on the two years covered by the $100 million legislation. Walker refers to "$680 over four years."
According to Webster, the "four years" was used because the savings reference is not just to the recent legislation, but to four years of reforms and belt-tightening that included freezing or greatly restricting how much school districts and local governments could collect from local taxpayers.
With that in mind, we compared the four-year change in the median property tax bill under Walker vs. Doyle.
Hard numbers, not a hypothetical.
The median bill was $2,963 when Walker came in, and is projected to be $2,954 in year four of his term, based on decisions already made. That’s a drop of $9, the result of three years of annual declines followed by an increase in 2014 that is projected to eat up most of the earlier cuts.
By contrast, the four straight annual increases in Doyle’s last four years resulted in a net increase of $230 in the median tax bill.
Walker said that with a bill bringing $100 million in property tax relief, "the typical Wisconsin homeowner will save approximately $680 over four years."
The claim in an e-newsletter strongly suggests $680 in hard savings from that tax relief bill, or at the very least during Walker’s four years, but we found nothing to back up that number or anything close to it.
You can only get to it using a rough hypothetical scenario based on some big assumptions, and can make a case for $239 in four-year savings compared to the four years prior to his term.
But Walker’s newsletter doesn’t disclose that his number is hypothetical, misleading the reader into thinking that the median tax bill actually has dropped by $680.
We rate his claim Pants on Fire.
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