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When Democrats controlled the Wisconsin Legislature in 2009, state Sen. Jim Holperin (D-Conover) joined a one-vote majority in favor of the two-year state budget.
Now that vote is providing fodder for Republican challenger Kim Simac as she tries to knock off Holperin in the Aug. 16, 2011, recall election. Holperin was among the Democrats who faced recalls over their quorum-blocking flight to Illinois to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed changes to collective bargaining.
Simac and conservatives in the other recalls have sought to contrast Walker’s austere increases in taxes and fees ($88 million) with then-Gov. Jim Doyle’s bill two years earlier ($1.9 billion in net tax and fee increases).
Simac put her own twist on it, going beyond those tax and fee increases when she criticized Holperin for raising local property taxes as part of the same budget vote in 2009.
"In 2009, (Holperin) voted against a property tax freeze. That same year he also voted for a $1.5 billion property tax hike," Simac said in a July letter on her website. "The consequences of Jim Holperin’s reckless votes have been devastating to our economy and our seniors."
Did Holperin really vote to kill a freeze and raise the burden on property taxpayers by that hefty figure?
It’s an interesting claim, because politicians at the state level take credit when they have an impact on holding down local taxes, and they get some blame for increases.
In reality, state lawmakers don’t set local property taxes; they’re voted on at the local level. But state budget decisions -- in part through limits or "freezes" on local taxes -- can greatly influence to what extent local schools and governments have to rely on local taxes.
The first blow in the one-two punch from Simac said Holperin opposed a tax freeze.
Her campaign, though, could not provide any evidence of a bill or budget amendment related to a tax freeze. Nor could we turn up any evidence after checking news stories and Senate amendments.
Holperin did, of course, vote against the Walker budget in 2011 that included a property tax freeze.
So that gets her off to a false start.
Now let’s look at the number.
Simac spokesman Matt Capristo pointed us to an April 2009 Legislative Fiscal Bureau report as backup for the $1.5 billion figure.
Every two years after lawmakers pass a budget, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates how much local governments might raise property taxes given the changes lawmakers made to state aid, limits on local taxes and tax credits. Property-value growth and many other variables factor in as well.
But we couldn’t find the $1.5 billion figure in the report. The section cited by the campaign estimates an increase of $478 million for 2010 over 2009 and another $528 million on top of that in 2011 over 2010.
The report offers no sum for the two-year total increase. Adding the two yearly increases means taxes in 2011 would be about $1 billion higher than in 2009.
That’s not $1.5 billion.
Simac argues it’s more accurate to compare each year’s tax total to the base year of 2009. Here’s the math: The first year is a $478 million boost, and the second-year increase is more than $1 billion if you compare taxes in 2011 to what they were two years earlier ($478 million plus $528 million).
Add the $1 billion-plus to the $478 million and that would reach $1.5 billion.
Who’s right? It depends on what question you want to answer.
Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said the average taxpayer looks at it year-to-year and would probably say it’s up $1 billion in two years.
But it’s true, he added, that compared to the base year, $1.5 billion more was to be collected.
So in making the claim, Simac picked a way to look at it that generated the highest possible number.
There are other issues to consider -- with either number.
The number from two years ago was a prediction. So we now know how much local governments and schools actually raised property taxes.
The figure, according to the fiscal bureau, is about 40 percent lower than the initial projections. That calculation comes from numbers that were publicly available in June 2011 -- a month before Simac made her statement.
Of course when Holperin voted on the budget, the estimate was much higher. So, we think it’s fair to use the original estimate as a benchmark for what Holperin was willing to support.
Let’s see what we have:
Simac said Holperin voted against a property tax freeze and voted for "a $1.5 billion property tax hike."
She offers no evidence there was any vote on a freeze. And we could find none ourselves. On the second part of her claim, Simac cites a report that on its face does not back up the $1.5 billion figure. She uses math that an average taxpayer probably would not, but officials say it’s one way to tally up the impact.
We think it’s somewhat misleading, but not totally out of bounds, to say Holperin "voted" for a property tax increase. After all, state actions have a big factor in local tax levies and lawmakers know the estimated impact on local levies when they approve a budget. And Holperin voted for the 2009-11 budget, the one in question.
We rate Simac’s claim Mostly False.
Kim Simac, letter on campaign website, July 21, 2011
Kim Simac, campaign press release, July 21, 2011
Interviews with Matt Capristo, Simac campaign communications director, Aug. 9-10, 2011
Interview with Rick Olin, fiscal analyst, Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Aug. 9, 2011
Interviews with Todd Berry, Dale Knapp and Kyle Christianson, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Aug. 9-11, 2011
Legislative Fiscal Bureau, property tax estimates, April 8, 2009
Interview with Bob Lang, director, Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Aug. 11, 2011
Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Act 28 memo, July 6, 2009
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