Matt Pommer: Walker makes early campaign moves
Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign has made two bright tax moves that should bolster his re-election efforts.
The governor has dispatched Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Revenue Secretary Richard Chandler to travel the state and listen to the public’s views on taxes. No matter which way the audience turns the discussion, Kleefisch and Chandler vow a re-elected Walker would hold down taxes.
Often other Wisconsin governors have appointed blue-ribbon commissions to study taxation and spending. They have been excellent studies, but they have rarely produced suggestions that translated into significant legislation or changes. People don’t like to pay taxes, and they like to tell politicians which taxes annoy them most.
Early this spring, the Walker administration adjusted the suggested withholding rates for state income tax on paychecks. That means less tax paid—more in weekly paychecks—now but potentially smaller returns in spring of 2015.
Clearly one of the goals was to make the limited income-tax break seem larger to voters as the gubernatorial election campaign unfolds.
The Walker administration also has shifted gears on tax issues by talking more about property taxes than it does about the income tax. At one point last year, the governor mused about replacing the personal income tax. But experts quickly pointed out the sales tax could reach 13 percent to replace the income tax revenue.
Lowering the income tax is political gospel for Republicans. But the tune shifted after polling showed that the property tax was the greatest concern of Wisconsinites. That’s not surprising because of the property tax impact on senior citizens.
Social Security payments—the largest sources of income for many Wisconsin seniors—already are exempt from the state income tax.
Todd Berry, president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, noted that talk in the state Capitol, too, has shifted from income tax concerns to the property tax. Walker is a Republican, and the GOP controls both houses of the Legislature.
Berry sees little chance of a sweeping tax-reform plan in Wisconsin, no matter what the audiences tell Kleefisch and Chandler. Chances for tax reform largely disappeared when the state’s large general-fund surplus was spent on many items, topped by new credits to ease corporate taxes.
“The problem with the Walker people is they’ve never had a vision about tax policy. They just careen from one tax policy to the next,” Berry told the Wisconsin State Journal last month.
Perhaps, but it might be good politics. Editorial writers and policy wonks like to examine the ideas of those running for high office. You can’t analyze ideas if the governor declines to spell out those goals and ideas. Walker knows you don’t have to spell out policy goals.
He is best remembered for effectively ending collective bargaining for most state and local government employees. He didn’t discuss the idea during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Walker also scored a political coup by making it difficult for unions who traditionally support Democrats to keep even limited political roles.
Walker has learned that making political promises can be dangerous. In his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, he promised, if elected, to create an additional 250,000 private-sector jobs in four years. He concedes he won’t be able to keep that promise.
On the other hand, Walker says, people won’t hold it against him for failing to fulfill the campaign promise. Citizens like public officials who have large, bold ideas, he said.
But there may be some skepticism if he makes any huge promises this year. Listening to citizens and changing withholding tables may be safer roads in 2014.
Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at firstname.lastname@example.org.