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Senate recycles bad green bill

By Bill Osmulski, MacIver News Service 

Wisconsin school districts could soon be unleashed to spend as much as they want without going to referendum – as long as it’s in the name of energy efficiency.

A group of 12 Republican and two Democrat state lawmakers plan to bring back the Energy Efficiency Exemption (EEE), which existed from 2009 to 2018. On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy held a public hearing on the bill.  

The program allowed districts to disregard their revenue limits for “green” projects. School districts and the Department of Public Instruction applied a very broad interpretation of what qualified.

The EEE funded new buses, roofs, boilers, HVACs, lighting fixtures, kitchen equipment, pool upgrades, fire alarm systems, parking lots, and masonry repairs. Green Lake even used the exemption to remodel its kitchen and buy new computers.

In total, school districts spent over $1.3 billion through the EEE from 2009 to 2018, according to the Department of Public Instruction. Almost half of that spending ($603.7 million) was approved during the final year of the program. Some issued bonds with debt service payments for the next 20 years.

All that extra green spending came directly from property taxpayers without ever going to referendum. That’s why lawmakers decided to shut down the program in the 2017 budget.

Unfortunately, dozens of school districts saw this as an opportunity to pass large building and operating referendums without taxpayers noticing. As the higher mill rates tied to the EEE ended, they were seamlessly replaced with the higher mill rates tied to the newly passed referendums. School district officials called this a “levy shelf” or “levy opportunity.”

Senators Luther Olson (R-Ripon), Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), Mark Miller (D-Monona), Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) are sponsoring SB 494, which would bring back the EEE and make it permanent.

Learn more at the MacIver Institute.

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