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Give the power to the people

It is time to end the nanny-state policies of the recent decades and return the power to local governments to set tax levies based on the needs of their communities rather than politics at the state capitol.

Since the 1990s Wisconsin state government has routinely imposed limits on the amount local governments can spend as a way to keep property taxes artificially low. The state does this through a carrot and stick process, with the promise of state shared revenues supplementing local tax dollars and the elimination of those funds if local elected leaders step out of line.

The practical effect of this is to make local governments dependent and therefore increasingly subservient to the wishes of Madison law makers. This allows the state government latitude to meddle in local government operations.

It also puts local leaders in a bind every year as they undertake the budget process. Local governments are limited to increasing the levy only by the amount of new growth in their community.

Over the long term this results in, at best, status quo budgets and the elimination of any possibility of new programs to address new community needs. At worst, when faced with cost increases, local governments must look at deep cuts in order to maintain basic services.

Decreasing services without a corresponding decrease in taxes being paid is just a backdoor tax increase and is akin to paying full price for a meal at a restaurant and only getting half your order.

This has only been marginally workable in recent years thanks to inflation and interest rates being kept low. In the current era of higher inflation, imposing limits on local governments’ ability to adjust spending to meet increased costs puts municipal, county and school budgets into a death spiral. This is further aggravated by a generational shift in local government workforce population and the need to be competitive with wages and benefits in attracting and retaining quality employees.

Budgeting has always been about establishing priorities and making choices. Thanks to state limits on local tax revenues and rapidly rising costs, in this year’s budget process government offi cials are like castaways stranded in a lifeboat deciding which will be eaten so that the others can cling to life.

Cannibalistic budgeting is a longterm recipe for disaster and a red flag to any quality current or prospective employees to jump ship as fast as possible.

It is time to give the power back to the people to determine what their taxation level should be and leave Madison special interest groups and political games out of the process.

It is time for Wisconsin to end state mandated levy limits and trust local government to address the needs and priorities of their communities without outside interference.

Members of The Star News editorial board include Publisher Carol O’Leary, General Manager Kris O’Leary and News Editor Brian Wilson.