Could the more than a quarter-billion dollars in annual income-tax breaks for manufacturers and agriculture producers, now drawing headline attention, affect Wisconsin politics leading up to the November election?
Fiscal experts expect the state will distribute $284 million in the 2017 tax year. Last year 78 percent of the tax-break program went to individuals making more than $1 million.
The tax-credit program was enacted in 2011 and called for a six-year phase-in. It was added to the state budget in the final days of deliberation and didn’t attract much attention at the time. Proponents argued it would help job creation.
That year Wisconsin politics was dominated by statutory changes pushed by Gov. Scott Walker affecting public-employee unions. Thousands of public workers rallied at the Capitol to protest Walker’s attack on collective bargaining. Later, media attention focused on plans to recall Walker and several Republican state senators. Actual payouts under the new program substantially exceeded projections.
The tax break comes in the form of a dollar-for-dollar tax credit that will reduce income tax liability. This year it is 7.5 percent of reported income, wiping out nearly all individual income-tax liability where the highest tax rate is 7.65 percent. It wipes out much of corporate income-tax liability where the rate is 7.9 percent.
Even better for the recipients, any unused credits can be carried over for 15 years.
For their part, Democrats have assailed the tax-credit program as “trickle-down politics.”
Such a large break for well-to-do citizens ordinarily might trigger sharp, adverse political reactions in an election year.
But the gerrymandering of legislative districts seems likely to protect the large Republican legislative majorities that enacted the tax break.
Common Cause in Wisconsin has estimated that less than 10 percent of the 132 legislative districts are competitive.
The district boundary lines drawn by Wisconsin Republicans five years ago following the 2010 census assures the GOP will control the Legislature into 2017.
The result for Wisconsin is that while Democrats have accumulated more total votes on a statewide basis in recent legislative elections than Republicans, the gerrymandering has more than offset those numbers.
But Wisconsin isn’t the only state in the union where Republicans have essentially captured the state legislature.
Taking a national perspective, Republican strategists spent years developing a plan to take advantage of the 2010 census, first by winning state legislatures and then redrawing House districts to tilt the playing field in their favor.
It has been widely reported and confirmed by Republicans that the party spent more than $30 million nationally for their “Redistricting Majority Project” or “REDMAP,” to help elect legislative majorities in states like Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
REDMAP already has been effective in more than 10 states.
So will Wisconsin voters react negatively in November to the GOP-enacted tax breaks? This also is a presidential election year, and voter turnout always is higher in those years.
Yet at this point there seems little enthusiasm in the general electorate for the expected presidential candidates of the major parties, so turnout is an open question.
The presidential election likely will overshadow any effort by Wisconsin Democrats to call attention to the $284-million tax credit payout. Gov. Walker sought the GOP nomination this year, but dropped out of the primary season when his poll numbers and contributions plunged.
His name was still mentioned when there is news media discussion of trying to keep the nomination from Donald Trump.
Walker has long harbored the idea of being president. The tax credit program for farmers and manufacturers could be attractive to his Republican reputation if he were to seek the GOP nomination in 2020.
But before that comes into play, Trump would have to lose in November and Walker would need to be re-elected in 2018.
Pommer, known as the “dean” of State Capitol correspondents, has covered government action in Madison for 35 years.
The content in this column does not reflect the views or opinions of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association or its member newspapers.
Reach Pommer via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.