Wisconsin City Rejects Property Tax Hike

Published November 1, 2003

Voters in Baraboo, Wisconsin, a small town with a population of roughly 11,000 located in south central Wisconsin, overwhelmingly rejected a referendum on September 9 that would have increased local property taxes in order to give the school district a funding increase of $7.5 million over three years.

“Is there really a tax revolt going on in Wisconsin? Up until recently, I wasn’t so sure,” notes State Rep. Frank Lasee (R-Green Bay) in a recent report. “Yes, we appeared to have overwhelming popular support for the statewide property tax freeze–nearly 90 percent of calls to the Legislative Hotline were in favor. But 90 percent of hotline calls is still a very small minority of the whole state.”

Against the Odds

According to Lasee, the Baraboo referendum is an important sign of the times. Nothing else was on the September 9 ballot–no other election to help draw voters to the polls. And Baraboo isn’t especially known for high voter turnout generally. Low voter turnout tends to mean success for a school tax increase, Lasee notes, because the pro-referendum side, led by teacher unions, is better organized.

Lasee also doubted whether popular support for the statewide property tax freeze would extend to a school tax referendum in Baraboo. “Citizen frustration, activism, and organization over last year’s pension scandal seemed to spill over to help elect an Assembly candidate who campaigned solely on his support for the freeze,” Lasee notes. “But there seemed to be little evidence that this activism extended much outside Milwaukee and Waukesha.”

Moreover, the Baraboo area isn’t exactly a hotbed of conservative voters, Lasee notes. Both the city and the county went decisively for Democrats Jim Doyle (governor) and Tammy Baldwin (congresswoman) last year, and for Al Gore in 2000.

In the days just before the Baraboo vote, according to Lasee, voters appeared evenly split. Each side had a few yard signs and handed out pamphlets. Letters to the editor ran slightly against the referendum, but the local paper editorialized in favor of it, twice.

“Given all that,” Lasee says, “one might expect the result to be a blowout.”

Revolt Underway?

It was–but not in the direction Lasee and others expected. Voters rejected the measure by a 78 to 22 percent margin.

Nearly 5,000 votes were cast–more than in any election over the past five years with the exceptions of last year’s gubernatorial election and the 2000 Presidential election. The state’s April 2003 referendum for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing Wisconsin residents the right to hunt and fish drew only 3,000 Baraboo-area votes.

“Perhaps there really is a taxpayer revolt,” Lasee concludes. “Big turnout, and a blowout defeat for what should have been, given the conditions, a successful referendum.” That’s evidence the tax revolt is real, says Lasee, and that it extends well beyond Milwaukee’s borders. It should serve as a morale boost for Wisconsin’s tax revolutionaries: “You’re not alone,” says Lasee.

“This referendum has to serve as a healthy reminder to all of our local, state, and federal elected officials: The taxpayers have had enough. Find another way.”

John Skorburg is managing editor of Budget & Tax News. His email address is [email protected].

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Rep. Frank Lasee issues a weekly email report, “Lasee’s Notes,” covering events in the Wisconsin state legislature and statewide. To subscribe, send an email to [email protected].