Still the most unfair of taxes

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Wisconsin should find better ways to reduce burdens, especially on vulnerable seniors.

ON THIS PAGE readers will find a column the paper regularly publishes written by Steve Walters, a knowledgeable veteran newsman with decades of experience around the Capitol.

His subject this week is property taxes, not only setting forth the voracious appetite for such revenues by Wisconsin governmental units but also how state government somewhat eases the pain through tax credits.

The number that sticks out is the "gross" $11.58 billion in property taxes assessed for 2019 (payable in 2020) by local schools and governments. Even after $1.4 billion in state tax credits, that number still tops $10 billion.

IN EVERY COMMUNITY the biggest driver of property tax collections is the public school district. A lot of people, we're sure, just look at the bottom line to see how much they'll have to fork over. But it's worth looking at where the money goes, specifically, and education eats the lion's share.

Which brings us to a couple points we - and others - have made before.

• The property tax, arguably, is among the most regressive and unfair collections used by governments.

• Property taxes can be particularly punitive for older citizens on fixed incomes, who may appear well-to-do on paper because of equity in a home or land, but lack cash resources to pay what government demands.

WISCONSIN POLITICIANS regularly acknowledge such things, and vow to look for better ways to pay for local government and school costs.

Mostly, one hears that kind of talk around elections. Then, nothing happens until the talk starts at the next election cycle.

Here's our thought. It is abuse of power to put older citizens into a situation where they may not be able to stay in their family homes because they can't afford to pay government's demands. In most of these situations the older property owners have paid to support schools for decades longer than they had kids - maybe even grandkids - in the system. There should come a time when they no longer are required to pony up the ever-growing demand for school taxes.

And while we're at it, older folks deserve a break paying taxes on their retirement benefits income. In most ways, Illinois looks like tax hell. But Illinois exempts most retirement income from taxation and, because of that, has attracted large retirement tracts of homes settled by older folks. If Illinois can give breaks to retirees, why not Wisconsin?

BACK TO THE POINT, though: Property ownership for seniors is not a reliable indicator of ability to pay. These are people who have shelled out all their lives.

Question: When is enough, enough?

Governments' answer, apparently, is never.

Wisconsin has a uniformity clause, sometimes cited as a barrier to reform, holding that all property is supposed to be taxed the same. Change that, if necessary, and give struggling seniors - people who have paid more than their share - a break. Meanwhile, get serious about finding fairer ways to fund local governments than continually heaping bigger burdens on property owners.

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