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Democrat Kathleen Falk’s bid to knock Gov. Scott Walker out in a likely recall election is subjecting her 14-year tenure as Dane County executive to attacks by Republicans.
Led by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, they are labeling Falk a classic Madison tax-and-spend liberal -- one out of step with the times.
"In a national economic downturn, Wisconsin families cannot afford to have a leader with an addiction to taxing and spending," Kleefisch wrote in an opinion piece published by Madison’s Capital Times on Feb. 3, 2012. "The failed policies Falk has consistently stood for throughout her career are exactly the same policies that led Wisconsin down an irresponsible path to a $3.6 billion budget deficit."
Kleefisch went on to cite chapter and verse:
"As Dane County executive, Falk raised taxes by millions of dollars every year, most notably in 2010, when she increased taxes by 8 percent, the second highest increase across the entire state of Wisconsin."
The op-ed piece contrasts these claims with Walker’s state budget, which Kleefisch says was balanced "without raising taxes on Wisconsin families."
We’ve labeled inaccurate, multiple times, the GOP claim that Walker didn’t raise taxes. He came close, and he cut taxes more than he raised them in his budget overall, but he reduced tax credits for some lower-income working people, which the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has scored as tax increases.
Asked to back up the claim about Falk, the Walker campaign -- speaking for Kleefisch -- pointed us to property tax figures compiled by Dane County and the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan research group.
Falk’s approach as executive from 1997 to 2011 was to limit increases in the property tax levy to inflation with a factor built in for population growth. It was an effort to tie increases to service demand, said Scott McDonell, chairman of the Dane County Board, which largely approved of Falk’s approach.
Did Falk’s budget raise property taxes by 8 percent in 2010, "the second highest" in the state? Yes.
In 2010, Falk busted past her self-imposed levy limit of 1.19 percent for that year. She blamed lagging sales tax and other revenue due to the Great Recession, and said higher property taxes, a 3 percent wage cut negotiated with county unions and efficiency moves would preserve needed services.
"I’ll be the first to say I’m not one bit comfortable with this levy increase, but using the formula would have resulted in painful cuts to public safety and human services that are unacceptable to me," Falk said at the time.
The 8 percent hike was second-highest behind Green County.
Did Falk’s budgets raise the levy by "millions" every year?
We analyzed the data and found that in Dane County, the property tax levy went up in a range from $2 million to $9 million every year. That’s in the neighborhood of 3 percent to 5 percent increases annually -- with the exception of 2010.
So the "millions" every year is accurate, though it’s worth pointing out that Dane County is nearly a half-billion-a-year operation supported by $133 million in tax levy -- so it doesn’t take a big percentage increase to get to "millions" of new property taxes in a year.
Falk’s campaign defends her budget record, saying her property tax "cap" was landmark. She, like Walker, touts the fact that she balanced budgets, though both were legally bound to do so.
The numbers showed Falk’s self-imposed limits held down property tax increases to the point that only 15 counties had a lower cumulative tax levy increase during that time, we found. Dane County ranked 57th among 72 counties, with 72 being the lowest levy increase.
By comparison, under then-County Executive Walker, Milwaukee County was fifth-lowest (68th ranked) from 2002 to 2011.
So both were in the bottom 20 percent of tax raisers, with Milwaukee County close to the champion of frugality.
Indeed, both counties raised property taxes: Dane’s levy went up $59 million in Falk’s 14 years, while Milwaukee’s rose $51 million over Walker’s nine years.
The difference: While Falk and the board gave themselves a cap on growth, Walker proposed zero tax levy increases each year and vetoed attempts to add to the levy. But the County Board almost always overrode him, complaining his budgets were unrealistic.
To be sure, Walker started each budget with the new, higher base. In effect, he used the new taxes he opposed one year to help his budget for the next year. So if you compare the tax levy he sought in his first budget to that in his last, it is up.
Kleefisch takes on Falk’s record of consistent property tax levy increases.
While we found Dane County on the low side for tax hikes during Falk’s 14 years, Kleefisch’s main point is that taxes went up every year under Falk, and spiked one year. They did.
We rate her statement True.
Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, op-ed piece, Feb. 3, 2012
Interview with Travis Myren, Dane County’s Director of Administration, Feb. 7-8, 2012
Interview with Dane County Board Chairman Scott McDonell, Feb. 7, 2012
Email exchange with Tom Evenson, press secretary, Scott Walker campaign, Feb. 7, 2012
Email exchange with Scot Ross, communications director, Kathleen Falk campaign, Feb. 7, 2012
Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Facts and Figures, county tax levy statistics 1989 to 2011, accessed Feb. 7, 2012
Dane County, 2010 Budget in Brief, 2011
Dane County, budget archive, accessed Feb. 7, 2012
County Executive Falk, press release on 2010 budget, Oct. 1, 2009
Milwaukee County budget archive, accessed Feb. 7, 2012
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