Steven Walters
The State of Politics

How to Change the State Tax Burden

New report proposes reducing property and income taxes by broadening the sales tax.

By - Oct 13th, 2014 11:32 am

Want to write your own tax code? A recent report offers Wisconsin taxpayers a cut-and-paste opportunity to do just that.

And, it could offer Republican Gov. Scott Walker – if he’s re-elected on Nov. 4 – political cover to make tax-code reform the signature issue of the 2015-17 session of the Legislature, if it’s again run by his fellow Republicans. Signing attention-getting tax reform into law would also broaden Walker’s appeal as a potential GOP candidate for President in 2016.

The simple premise of the right-leaning Wisconsin Policy Research Institute report:  “Wisconsin doesn’t just suffer from high taxes. It suffers from the wrong tax mix,” says WPRI President Mike Nichols. “While our sales taxes are lower than those in two-thirds of other states, our income and property tax burdens are significantly higher. There is a clear need for Wisconsin to step back on firm ground and consider a new tax mix that lowers more harmful income and property taxes and broadens the sales tax law.”

What good would that do? “Economic growth,” the report says. WRPRI says those tax-code changes would create new private-sector jobs, trigger new investments in businesses and result in “new, real disposable income.” Its study was done by economists at Suffolk University’s Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research.

More interesting is the mix-and-match chance the report offers to design a new tax code, based on its list of 25 goods and services now exempt from the 5 percent state sales tax and how much money extending the sales tax to each of them would raise annually. You can do that by applying the new revenue you get when you end a specific tax break to the specific tax you want lowered. It’s not Common Core math.


-Want to abolish the personal property tax, something a Republican-led special legislative committee hopes to find a way to do? Then you must find $269 million a year to replace the personal property tax that now goes to local governments. Now, comb through WPRI’s list of now-exempt goods and services to raise that $269 million.

For example, applying the sales tax to legal services would bring in almost $120 million per year; taxing vehicle trade-ins, another $97.1 million, and taxing accounting work would bring $51 million more. Bingo! You raised almost $269 million to replace the personal property tax.

-Want to wean technical colleges off the property tax? Then you must find up to $615 million, according to the non-profit Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Hmm.  Back to that list of tax-exempt goods and services. Charging the 5 percent sales tax on food would raise $536 million a year, but it could also make everyone in the state so mad they would overlook the cut in their property tax bills. Charging the sales tax on food would also hit low- and middle-income residents the hardest, although the WPRI study said income tax credits that offset what they pay for food would be fairly easy to devise.

Is there some other way to replace that $615 million that technical colleges now raise in property taxes? If you don’t want to charge the 5 percent sales tax on food, here are tax exemptions you could cancel that total about $615 million: Tax legal services, +$120 million; fuel/electricity used by homes, +$117.6 million; vehicle trade-ins, +$97.1 million;  architecture/engineering services, +$83.8 million;  accounting services, +$51 million;  commissions paid real estate brokers, +$23.9 million; water sold through mains, +$23.9 million; beauty and barber services, +$23.1 million; veterinary services, +$21.2 million;  bottled water, +$19.5 million; funeral services, caskets and burial vaults and finally, +$17.4 million and health clubs, +$17 million.

Go ahead and try to end those exemptions. Every one of those tax-exempt industries and trade associations will spend millions of dollars on lobbyists and others to fight for the status quo. And, when they get the attention of legislators with campaign-finance donations, they usually win.

-Want to eliminate the income tax on corporations to spur economic development? Then use the WPRI study numbers to find $962 million and get back to me.

And, if you need the equivalent of pocket change in the couch, here are some small sales tax exemptions and how much ending them would raise: interior design, +$1.9 million; tax-preparation services, +$2.1 million, and disinfecting/extermination services, +$3.3 million. Why are exterminators exempt from sales taxes? That’s one thing the report didn’t explain.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the non-profit WisconsinEye public affairs channel. Contact him at

13 thoughts on “The State of Politics: How to Change the State Tax Burden”

  1. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    You never lower taxes by raising taxes. Learned that long ago. The Left has long been against the sales tax, remember 1962?? Why would they do that. We have decent mix, just too many taxes.
    Time to make public employees pay the same percentage into health and pension that the public does.

  2. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    “Trickle-down 2014- tax the poor and it’ll be different.”

    C’mon, have we learned anything in the last 35 years if this failed BS? You want “economic growth”? How about paying people a fair, competitive wage instead of being cheapos like most Wisconsin employers?

    And yes, Mike Nichols is a former longtime Journal-Sentinel “objective” columnist. The revolving door between Journal Communications and right-wing hackery is remarkable.

  3. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Jake, another totally incoherent answer to a tough problem, creating jobs. Typical Left.

  4. PMD says:

    Cutting taxes doesn’t create jobs and strong economic growth. Just ask Kansas, which has resorted to selling porn to raise revenue.

  5. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Th debate is about tax shifting. What does create Jobs, more welfare, higher employee salaries, more food stamps?

  6. PMD says:

    Oh right “shifting,” not cutting.

    Raising the sales tax means the poor pay more in taxes. How does that reduce poverty?

  7. Casey says:

    Doesn’t Tennessee’s sale tax include everything and a bit higher than ours? I sincerely wonder what effect that has had on poverty and home ownership there. TN’s two largest cities Memphis and Nashville have poverty rates at around 20% while Milwaukee’s is around 30%. If the increased sales tax means lower property taxes maybe home ownership is more affordable especially for the elderly and children who inherit a home thus keeping decent neighborhoods stable.

    This is just me thinking out loud…I don’t think any of us would want the crime Memphis has.

  8. blurondo says:

    Eliminate all tax exempt real estate. Property taxes are subsidizing all of the municipal services that those property owners receive at no charge. The time has come to charge for those services.

    Allow municipalities to charge an income tax for non-residents who work in those cities. The cities are providing, for free, dozens of expensive services to those wages earners. Some of those are: police and fire services, street and side walk maintenance, traffic control, street lighting, forestry services, sanitation services and more. All are at no charge to the visiting daily users of those services.

  9. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    if the public employees paid into their pension, health, dental as the rest of us do we would solve problem. Milwaukee guys buy votes with fat salaries then moan to everyone else.
    Why should public employees get better pay, health, pension, dental, vacations, retirement, days off holidays, etc. than the rest of us, who pay their salaries.

  10. Tim says:

    Dohnal, are you saying Act 10 should expand to police & fire services?

  11. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    all public employee salaries and bennies should be brought into line with the private sector. People need to demand it.

  12. PMD says:

    I totally agree WCD. I wish more people from all political persuasions were demanding that ACT 10 be expanded to police & fire services.

  13. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    I can speak to some of Casey’s questions, as my Dad lives in Memphis. The sales tax there is around 9%, and includes food at grocery stores (nice regressive tax there). But I’d be careful comparing city poverty rates, as the City of Memphis (as well as Nashville) encompasses an area that’s larger than all of Milwaukee COUNTY, let alone the City of Milwaukee. If “Milwaukee” included Tosa, Greenfield, Whitefish Bay, Franklin, etc., its poverty rate is a whole lot lower.

    Take a look at the huge poverty rates in Confederate states, and then notice how many have “broadened” sales taxes and lowered taxes on the rich, like the Bradley Boys at WPRI are propping. It goes hand in hand.

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