Time to tax Wisconsin’s rich

April 15, 2010

TEACHERS, STUDENTS and community members packed a March 22 public meeting to voice their opposition to proposed cuts to public schools.

The Madison Metropolitan School Board is facing a $30 million budget shortfall for the 2010-11 year due to decreased aid from the state. The school board is considering slashing programs for students, eliminating teachers, counselors, psychologists, school nurses and other staff, and possible school closings.

Citizens defended endangered programs that children and parents rely on, and many speakers begged the school board to increase their taxes to keep funding alive. After the outpouring of community opposition to the cuts, the school board voted to eliminate school closings from the list; however, deep cuts are still likely.

This is a familiar pattern seen across the country as state and federal funding for schools is being slashed, ostensibly because everyone must tighten their belts during the recession. However, claims that the money just isn't there ring hollow.

Madison recently approved a $16 million subsidy to developers for renovation of an upscale downtown hotel, hastily approving the removal of several city ordinances to enable the project to move forward. That price tag alone could make up over half the budget shortfall for the schools. But officials believe that putting public money into private hands for short-term profit is a better investment into our economic future than educating our children.

In addition, Madison found the money to increase the 2010 police budget beyond even the amount the police department requested.

There is some twisted logic to this: if we continue robbing our crumbling schools of needed funding, we'll need more cops on the streets--because that's where children will end up. A 2007 study by Northeastern University found that young men who hadn't graduated from high school were 31 times more likely to be incarcerated than men with college diplomas, and Black men were 60 times more likely to be incarcerated if they didn't graduate high school.

IN THE short term, the only way to avoid cuts is to increase property taxes, and Madison will likely see tax increases alongside heavy cuts. But the root of the problem runs deeper.

The tax burden is falling more heavily on the working class as corporations' share of taxes declines. According to U.S. Census data, corporate income tax has gone from 10 percent of Wisconsin tax revenue in 1979 to 5.8 percent in 2005. Two thirds of corporations in Wisconsin paid no income taxes in 2003 or 2004, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

A 2007 article in Madison's Isthmus newspaper revealed that simply bringing corporate income tax up to the national average would generate $1 billion in state revenue that could be used for schools and other services. But city and state officials prefer to make the poor and the shrinking middle class foot the bill for public services as the rich continue to plunder public coffers for their own profit.

Taxing the rich might seem an impractical demand, but the non-profit Institute for Wisconsin's Future has proposed a number of practical policy changes that would generate billions in funding for the state by making the rich pay their fair share, such as increasing the tax rate for the wealthiest residents, reinstating the estate tax for estates over $1 million, taxing 100 percent of capital gains and eliminating numerous loopholes that allow corporations to pay little or no taxes.

Making taxes more progressive is realizable but will require a push from below. Here, Oregon is pointing the way forward: voters recently approved two ballot measures that increase taxes on the richest 3 percent of taxpayers, raise the minimum corporate tax and eliminate some taxes on unemployment benefits. Despite a smear campaign led by Oregon's biggest corporate players, the measures passed--thanks in large part to a grassroots door-to-door campaign.

The money for education is there, but the backward priorities of our system ensure that public education is always first on the chopping block, while the burden of holding together a crumbling system increasingly falls to working class people with shrinking pocketbooks. Let's follow Oregon's lead and tax the rich.
Amy Kemery, Madison, Wis.

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