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Monday, July 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Paper


How Gov. Doyle lowered the average tax level in Wisconsin
Are Democrats the fiscal conservatives?

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Poor Jim Doyle. Never Mr. Excitement as a governor, he was the sort of charisma-challenged chieftain even Democrats had trouble getting excited about. In the 2010 election, as Wisconsin was being ravaged by the Great Recession, Scott Walker and the Republicans swept to power by pounding on him mercilessly, though he wasn't the opposing candidate.

The GOP caricature of Doyle, of course, included the idea he was taxing us to death, but the latest figures from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance remind us that this was not so. Indeed, the record suggests that taxes in Wisconsin were lower under Doyle than under any governor in the last five decades, as compared to other states. It remains to be seen how Walker will do in that regard.

WisTax loves to track Wisconsin's ranking in state-local taxes compared to other states, and for almost forever this state was in the top 10. Going all the way back to 1963, when the state first adopted a sales tax, Wisconsin had consistently ranked in the top 10, in every year except 1980 and 1968.

One of the peak levels of taxation came under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who increased taxes to the point that they took 13.1% of personal income in Wisconsin in 1996, when the state ranked third in taxes nationally. The state still ranked fourth when Thompson left office.

Under Doyle, the state's ranking dropped all the way to 14th in 2007, virtually unheard of in Wisconsin, and taxes hit a low point of taking 11.2% of personal income in 2009. As the most recent WisTax figures show, that rose a bit by Doyle's last budget year, 2010-2011, or fiscal 2011, when state-local taxes took 11.8% of state residents' personal income, and Wisconsin ranked 10th among the states.

Dale Knapp, a researcher for WisTax, doesn't expect major changes in this ranking for Walker's first two budget years. "You may see a small change," he predicts. "The only change was that property taxes were flat, and my guess is that they were going up nationally."

As for Walker's second biennial budget, despite all the hubbub about the income tax cut, WisTax doesn't predict a huge impact. If that tax cut was "adjusted for inflation and included in 2011 figures, Wisconsin's income tax rank would have moved from 12th to 13th and its total-tax rank from 10th to 12th," WisTax estimated.

But by the time that tax cut goes into effect, changes in other states will also have had an impact, which could adjust the estimated ranking up or down. The rankings can be surprising because they're not just about this state's fiscal discipline but about how we compare to all other states. We won't actually know until 2016 the exact impact of Walker's second budget.

I should note these rankings have always been misleading, in that they don't include all fees and revenue collected by state and local governments. Wisconsin has no toll roads, while Illinois gouges people with its tolls. This state also has lower fees for things like garbage collection, sewers and university tuition. When all taxes and fees are considered, Wisconsin collected 15.2% of personal income, slightly above the national average of 15% for all the states. When you consider that Wisconsin has generally ranked near the bottom among states in federal funding (even before Walker turned down so much federal funding), it suggests that state spending here is right at the national average.

Another way of measuring this is to look at total state-local spending. The WisTax figures show the 2011 state/local expenditures per person were $8,351 nationally and almost exactly the same, $8,383, in Wisconsin.

So why the constant drumbeat that Wisconsin overspends compared to other states? The WisTax rankings help beat the drum. (The organization's website claims it promotes "good government," but "cheaper government" might be more accurate.) Perhaps the loudest drum has been themedia's, which loves rankings, along with talk radio and Republicans. Thompson, memorably, used the state's ranking to tar Democrat Tony Earl as "Tony the Taxer," but Tommy the Taxer drove spending and taxes far higher. Yet Democrats typically let Thompson get away with his absurd insistence he was a fiscal conservative. Had he been a Democrat, Republicans would have branded him a socialist.

The reality is there was never much difference between Republican and Democratic governors when it came to government spending. Since the early 1960s, the most fiscally conservative governors were Republican Lee Dreyfus and Democrat Jim Doyle.

Will Walker best them in that regard? Perhaps. During his first two years, he cut the long-term debt, what is sometimes called the structural deficit, from $2.99 billion to about $2.06 billion by this year. But under his new budget, that figure is expected to rebound to $2.64 billion by 2015. That budget depended greatly on issuing bonds, particular for transportation, which will greatly increase state indebtedness.

Walker is spending less on schools but more on roads than Doyle. The gift list has changed, but the total bill may not.

Bruce Murphy is the editor of

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