July 30, 2008

Taxes on Tap at Local Meeting

By Samantha Marcus, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jul. 30--ONALASKA, Wis. -- Tuesday night's Wisconsin Way town hall gathering was a meeting about proven outcomes and measurable results -- both for the process and ideas the group is peddling.

"How do we make it happen? Because I don't trust they'll figure it out down there (in Madison)," asked Kraig Brownell. Wisconsin Way, an association of public and professional organizations, has been traveling across the state compiling input on the state's tax structure.

The second stop in the La Crosse area, this forum was intended to report back on ideas collected statewide. The meeting Tuesday at Onalaska's OmniCenter drew less than 50 people, while 358 attended the October session.

"The only way to make this happen is to demonstrate that the people of Wisconsin want it to happen," said Jim Wood, president of Wood Communications Group.

Wood said this is just the beginning of what's likely going to be a 3 to 7 year conversation and the group likely wouldn't formally present its findings to elected officials until the first quarter of next year.

Wood's presentation included dozens of suggestions, such as creating a federation of regional economic development agencies and consolidating certain government services.

All but a few audience members agreed the state needs to reduce its reliance on property taxes and should consider shifting that burden to an expanded sales tax.

Wood also offered up an alternative to traditional student loans that would treat 4-year and technical colleges like an investment.

The "human TIF" program would provide tuition for levels and payback tied to the recipient's future income levels, Wood said. The state would see payback regardless of whether the person moved out of the state.

But like any investment, it's a risk, he added. Some are going to fail, some are going to die and some are going to become drug addicts.

At the October forum, audience members were especially concerned about keeping property taxes affordable for seniors.

But the majority of Tuesday's group argued it was less about age than ability to pay and senior citizens shouldn't be treated differently in the property tax formula.

A 25-year-old making minimum wage has the same challenges a senior does, one woman said.

And because wealth is accumulated over time, senior citizens are by far the wealthiest class, said T.J. Brooks, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. They're just no longer earning any income, he added.

Samantha Marcus can be reached at (608) 791-8220 or [email protected]


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