School Districts Using New Way to Exceed State Revenue Limits
147 Districts Have Spent $138 Million Over "Caps" Since 2009
MADISON – Since 2009, 147 school districts have spent $138 million above state-imposed revenue limits without approval of referendum voters. This is the key finding of an analysis from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX) released today in its biweekly Focus newsletter.
Since passage of an obscure state law in 2009, WISTAX explains, the state’s 424 K-12 school districts have been able to exempt energy efficiency expenditures from state revenue limits. The law was used little for the next four years: The annual number of school districts claiming the exemption never surpassed 35; the annual amount spent never topped $9 million.
However, after 2012, use of the energy exception to revenue limits began to grow quickly. In 2013-14, 53 districts (12.5% of the total) spent $22 million outside the limits. The next year, figures grew to 81 and $37 million, respectively, and in 2015-16, 105 districts — about one in four — claimed $49 million in energy exemptions outside revenue limits.
All told, WISTAX researchers report that, in the past three school years, 111 K-12 districts have used the energy exemption 239 times to spend a total of $108 million beyond revenue “caps.”
WISTAX calls this development somewhat unexpected, since voters have been increasingly willing to let school districts exceed their revenue limits. Since 2000, the approval rate for such local referenda has risen from 52% to 70% in 2010-11 and to 81% in 2015-16.
WISTAX President Todd A. Berry notes that he is beginning to hear questions from the public and press about these developments. First, why should districts take unilateral action to exceed state revenue limits when voters are willing to approve most requests? And, second, is there need for an energy efficiency exemption if such projects promise, as they must, budget savings?
A free copy of the WISTAX study, “School districts exceeding state revenue limits by referendum, or . . . ,” can be obtained by going to www.wistax.org or by emailing email@example.com; calling 608.241.9789; or writing WISTAX at 401 North Lawn Ave., Madison, WI 53704-5033.
The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization promoting good government through research and citizen education since 1932. Our work is funded by donations and sales of WISTAX publications. We receive no government funding. We do not lobby nor engage in advocacy. Donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.