Citizens should be able to force binding referendum votes.

Cities and counties in Wisconsin have been worked up over what is called the “dark store loophole” in calculating property taxes for businesses.

It goes like this. Business interests have been agitating for valuations of their properties to be based solely on the structure, as if nothing were in it. Tax assessors put a higher value on a fully operating business—complete with customers, employees and stock—than an empty shell. Obviously, the difference in tax liability for the property owner can be considerable.

Government managers say the dark store situation creates a significant shift in property tax obligations away from commercial enterprises and toward homeowners. A chart in the December edition of The Municipality, published by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, shows this: In the early 1970s the state’s property-tax burden was 50.6 percent residential and 49.4 percent business. In the last year it was 67.2 percent residential and 32.8 percent business.

In response, about two dozen advisory referendums—including here in Rock County—were on the ballot Nov. 6 asking voters to weigh in on whether legislators should close the dark store loophole. More than 800,000 voters—almost 80 percent of votes cast on the issue—said yes.

Don’t expect legislators to take it from there. That’s because the key word is advisory. The politicians can take it or leave it. History suggests, from plenty of prior advisory referendums, the most likely result is no action.

For years now, we have argued Wisconsin needs a constitutional change to allow what is known as the initiative-and-referendum option. Plenty of other states already have it.

Here’s how it works, in a broad sense. Citizens who get frustrated by their legislators brushing them off can gather signatures on a petition. Get enough signatures and the issue goes right over the heads of the politicians and must be placed on the ballot as a binding referendum.

So, dark stores? Maybe. But think bigger—term limits; independent redistricting; campaign finance transparency.

Politicians protect their own interests, and the interests of their donors. We need a tool to shove them out of the way, when all else fails.

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