Empower Wisconsin | Feb. 17, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The Evers administration and their government lobbying pals just got busted trying to sneak in a change to Wisconsin’s Homeowners’ Bill of Rights that would have watered down protections against unwanted home assessments.
Billed as a mere technical change to the 2018 law, the legislation would loosen language that requires assessors, when requesting to view the interior of a residence, to provide written notice informing property owners of their right to refuse entry. The bill changes just one word, replacing “notice” with “information.” But that one word changes the intent of the legislation, according to the statute’s author, Sen. David Craig.
“It would victimize people all over again,” the Town of Vernon Republican said.
Craig’s provision was part of a broader package of property rights bills written by Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and then-Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake). For full disclosure, Jarchow serves as president of Empower Wisconsin’s news organization.
Craig wrote the accessor piece following a property rights lawsuit in the Town of Dover. Homeowners Vincent Milewski and Morganne MacDonald sued the local government, its Board of Review and the company contracted to conduct property assessments for the town. The property owners alleged their constitutional rights were violated when they refused to let an assessor into their home and then were not allowed to challenge the resulting assessment.
State law at the time did not restrict property owners from denying accessors access, but it did prevent them from appealing final assessments.
Craig argued the law was unconstitutional, violating the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments on unreasonable search and seizure and due process.
Craig said the “technical” change, sought by Evers’ Department of Revenue, would undermine the core of the property rights legislation, opening the door for assessors to enter the home without providing proper notice of rights.
Sources say the Wisconsin Towns Association is lobbying hard for the revisions. Local governments don’t care for a law that prevents assessors from getting a complete look at the home — in the pursuit of local tax collections.
“There has been different interpretations of the word notice by assessors, local government officials and DOR (Department of Revenue),” the agency wrote in a legislative proposal summary.
But Joseph Kreye, Legal Services Manager for the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, said he’s not sure why the Evers Administration wants the change in the first place.
“I can only speculate that DOR believes using the word ‘notice’ implies certain substantive and procedural due process requirements not implicated by using the word ‘information’ and that DOR is, consequently, more comfortable with using the word ‘information’ and perhaps avoiding legal implications,” Kreye wrote in a memo.
So, Evers’ Revenue team is more “comfortable” easing up on language that would protect constitutional rights and get them off the hook legally.
It is not a difference without a distinction. Kreye notes in the memo that Wisconsin statutes contain more than 8,500 instances of “notice” and all seem to use the term as it is generally understood: to give the public notice of rights, proceedings, and governmental events. Notice is more formal, packs more legal weight. Just the kind of protections property owners were promised under the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights.
Assembly Bill 881 appeared to be on the fast track for a vote this week, but several lawmakers have raised red flags about the substantial changes to the law.
More so, Craig is raising concerns about the effort from the Evers administration, bending to the will of government lobbyists like the Towns Association and the League of Municipalities, to sneak through a dramatic change to a law. The senator said it was fortunate staff members with knowledge of the law caught the subtle one-word alteration. Lawmakers on the review committee apparently did not.
“This merits a deeper look into how this bill came about,” Craig said. “This Legislature has to take even more serious these bills coming forward and we need to look at reforming if not eliminating this now-abused process.”