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How to do the right thing

From: Badger Institute

The unexpectedly bright revenue prospects of Wisconsin’s state government represent both an opportunity and a danger. A year from now, how will we know which one it is? By whether the state’s $6.6 billion in surplus revenue was used for epoch-marking reform.

Such reform is the opportunity — the chance to turn Wisconsin away from stagnant mediocrity and toward opportunity and justice.

The danger comes from the use of such money to fund the status quo.

As the Badger Institute illustrates in its new “Mandate for Madison,” the status quo means settling for Wisconsin’s economic output per person, which was once growing apace with our neighbors but has lagged during the recovery and now is second-worst among our Midwestern peers. Likewise, our population is growing at a pace that’s middling even when measured against our slow-growth Midwest neighbors. Projections of our working-age population show much slower growth than that of the United States overall. Nationally recognized measures of Wisconsin’s economic freedom, once growing, have flatlined.

This is why it is dismaying to learn that state agencies’ budget requests would snap up at least half the surplus, all so that Madison can go on doing the same as it is now, only at a price that’s 10.6% higher over the biennium. “More of the same but costlier” will not improve Wisconsin’s trajectory, which now involves seeing the receding taillights of more prosperous neighbors.

Instead, that surplus can fund change that will put Wisconsin at the front of the pack. The Badger Institute this fall published “Mandate for Madison,” a collection of ready-to-deploy policy recommendations for a more prosperous Wisconsin from some of the best thinkers in and about our state. Consult the book at our website for details, but these are reforms that we think will make the greatest change for Wisconsin:

Reform our income tax from being punitive to being fair and competitive: 

While Wisconsin has lowered income taxes for some in recent years, the top rate remains high, at 7.65%. That’s a higher top rate than all but eight states, and one of those, Iowa, is moving to a flat rate of 3.9% in 2026. Twenty-five states have lower top rates than they did in a decade ago. Standing still, we’re falling behind.

People can choose where they live, and even as Wisconsin employers find it hard to attract workers, Wisconsin’s tax system not only charges high rates, it increases those rates on people as they earn higher pay.

High rates also are taxes on employers. About 95% of Wisconsin businesses are structured as “pass-throughs,” such as partnerships or LLCs, where the tax on business income is levied on the owner’s individual tax return. About two-thirds of pass-through business income in Wisconsin is exposed to the 7.65% top rate — meaning less earnings to be reinvested in the business, less hiring, less groundwork for growth. The more successful a growing business is, the less affordable Wisconsin remains as a place to do business.

The way to change that is to adopt a fairer structure, one that charges the same rate of all taxpayers. This immediately removes the sharp jump in tax rate that now wallops a successful business or a high-talent employee rising in her career when these taxpayers move from the second-highest bracket to the highest.

In “Mandate for Madison,” the Tax Foundation’s Katherine Loughead lays out options for such a flat-rate tax, with a single rate ranging from 4.15% to 5.1%, depending on what other tax changes are included and how much Wisconsin gives back to taxpayers of what it took unnecessarily. Every taxpayer now in the top two of Wisconsin’s four tax brackets would see a tax cut. That’s about half of all households. Then, by using Wisconsin’s income-linked sliding-scale standard deduction — increasing the deduction and raising phase-out points — our proposal protects taxpayers in the lower two brackets, ensuring that they, who saw tax cuts in recent years, now would see no increase.

It is literally a no-downside proposition. The upside is not just that at least half the state’s taxpayers keep more of their money. It’s that our tax system stops being something that employers flee and, instead, contributes to our competitiveness. Even the option that goes to a 5.1% flat income tax and makes no change to the corporate tax rate moves Wisconsin from being 27th-best among state business climates to ninth-best.

For every Wisconsinite needing a job or hoping her children someday can make a livelihood here without having to move away, that’s a win.

Bring justice to the funding of Wisconsin families’ educational options: 

A core American value from our country’s earliest days is that parents can choose the education they think best suits their children. Wisconsin has long respected families’ power to choose the right school by offering open enrollment, public charter schools and, for three decades, the right to take a child’s state educational aid to an independent private school via our parental choice programs.

Families have embraced these choices. Wisconsin’s four parental school choice programs now serve about 52,000 students, a number 6.7% higher than in 2021 and 43% higher than five years ago, even as the number of school-age children in Wisconsin remains flat.

Yet families’ ability to access these choices is stymied by systemic inequality on two fronts.

First, children whose parents choose an independent private school are valued much less in state-aid terms than children whose parents choose district schools. The average per-pupil funding in Wisconsin’s incumbent district schools is just over $15,000 a year per child, all in, with individual districts spending from $11,000 to $22,000 per pupil. Children whose parents opt to take state aid to a private school via parental choice get only $8,399 for K-8 students and $9,045 for high schoolers. Since schools must accept this voucher as full payment in nearly all cases, this radically limits the ability of independent schools to serve Wisconsin children.

It also treats families unequally. As the head of a network of nonprofit schools in Green Bay put it, “A child is a child is a child,” yet the state is saying some children are worth about 40% less. “I’m not really sure what goes into the state deciding how much a child is worth in private education versus public education,” she said. “I just know that it’s unjust.”

Second, while the state offers aid to cover the cost of schooling to families of all income levels so long as parents use a traditional district school or independent charter schools, it excludes families from the parental choice programs if their income is as little as 220% of the poverty line — $58,300 for a family of four in Green Bay, for instance. This blocks working- and middle-class families from choosing an independent school if they cannot swing the cost of tuition or find philanthropic help — even as the state’s highest income families, who can afford to move to a better school district, are fully subsidized, so long as they choose traditional district schools or an independent charter.

Wisconsin’s revenue situation gives us a chance to permanently repair this injustice — first, by parity in funding for Wisconsin children, based on the principle that students all have an equal value in the eyes of the law and that where a child receives a publicly funded education should not determine the amount of that funding.

Second, as justice in funding permits independent schools to serve more Wisconsin families, a uniform eligibility for publicly funded education options can be extended to all families. Every Wisconsin family now lives under Wisconsin’s mandatory attendance laws and is obliged to pay taxes. All should be eligible for the choice that has for decades been a principle of Wisconsin education.

Many needed reforms don’t require a lot of money: 

Our “Mandate for Madison” includes many other reform ideas. Few of them require much additional state spending. For example:

On health care, enabling market innovation is first a matter of not impeding the emergence of direct primary care, improving transparency and getting out of the way of professionals practicing their skills.

On our safety net, we should consolidate existing ample funding streams and restructure them, re-establishing work and education requirements, so we no longer discourage work and marriage.

On crime, adequately funding prosecutors and public defenders is a good use of money, but as important is targeting funding and political support for police in Milwaukee.

Reforming Wisconsin’s onerous occupational licensing doesn’t require more spending, just an honest look at what barriers unfairly impede work.

We could go on, but the point is clear: Most of Wisconsin’s problems can be addressed by government performing better rather than growing larger.

Justly funding Wisconsin’s commitment to empowering families’ educational choice will take some money — spending that will enable more access to the superior results already seen in independent schools.

But this means there is an ample surplus that’s been taken from taxpayers available to return to them through tax reform, reform that will put Wisconsin on a path of greater prosperity for all. We should take that path.