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Energy efficiency boondoggle is back

Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 10, 2020

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON — A bi-partisan group of lawmakers wants to bring back the big boondoggle that once allowed school districts to exceed their revenue limits to pay for energy efficiency projects — some of those projects suspect. 

Senate Bill 494 — a bipartisan measure authored by Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), would return this revenue jackpot for districts more than two years after former Republican Gov. Scott Walker used his veto pen to effectively end the special funding source. The original allowance, in effect since 2009, was the creation of Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle and the left-leaning legislature at the time.

The exemption bill passed this week 4-1 in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, chaired by Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay). Olsen, vice chair of the committee, also voted for the measure, along with the committee’s two Democrats. 

Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) cast the lone vote against it, expressing concerns that the bill didn’t allow voters to decide the question through referendum. 

Fiscal conservative lawmakers in 2017 urged Walker to veto what amounted to a brief legislative moratorium for one year on the energy efficiency exemption. It was among several provisions in the budget they could not support, threatening to vote against the entire 2017-19 budget if the items weren’t removed. 

Walker’s veto effectively extended the moratorium by 1,000 years.

Apparently time flies in politics. 

Sen. Duey Stroebel was among the lawmakers opposed to the energy efficiency allowance. He remains so. 

“This bill would allow school districts to exceed the revenue limit without a referendum, a policy that will increase property taxes,” the Saukville Republican said. “The closing of this often abused tax hike loophole was a key victory in the last Walker Budget.”

Stroebel urged conservatives to oppose “these attempts to increase taxes without the voters having a chance to weigh in directly.”

Legislative insiders said it was a good sign that Marklein cast a dissenting vote against the bill. They said it sent a signal that the caucus is divided. 

The revenue cap exemption, ostensibly for “green projects,” was exploited by some school districts to fill budget holes. 

As MacIver News Service reported in 2017, then-Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) detailed a case of property tax abuse in her district. On the Senate floor, she said “the voters of the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District rejected a referendum of $12.5 million. Four months later, the school district utilized this loophole for $12.8 million on what they called ‘energy efficient projects.’”

“This was an end-run around the taxpayers,” Vukmir continued. “The voters had said no. What is the point of having restrictions on referenda while at the same time providing a loophole for dodging the process?”

Conservative lawmakers want to make sure they stop this “end-run” from becoming law. 

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