Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Doyle's Freeze Flip Flop

What a difference an election makes.

In 2003, legislative Republicans passed what they termed a "property tax freeze," in an effort to keep slumping state revenue from being passed on to local taxpayers. As legislators were required to cut state spending (much of it that is allocated to local governments and school districts), they placed caps on local governments to make sure that the lost local revenue wasn't made up for with property taxes.

Throughout the budget process, Doyle derided talk of a property tax freeze as a "gimmick," and "bumper sticker politics." When the bill came to his desk, he promptly vetoed all of the property tax caps, allowing local taxes to go up an average of 9%.

The following are some Doyle quotes relating to the 2003 freeze:

"The so-called 'freeze' was nothing more than a political gimmick -- it was an arbitrary cap that did nothing to attack the root causes and help control costs," Doyle said. "Instead of Madison telling local government what is best for them, I want to work as partners to solve the problem together." - Capital Times, October 8, 2003

"But I believe there are enough people in the Legislature who, when confronted with the choice of whether they're really going to attack public education in Wisconsin, are going to stand up for our kids." - Capital Times, July 30, 2003

In a move that sets the stage for a major confrontation with the Republican controlled Legislature, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle today vetoed a plan to impose a three-year property tax freeze on local governments.Doyle called the proposal an "unfair and irresponsible mandate." - Capital Times, July 24, 2003

After weeks of dismissing it as a "gimmick" and "bumper-sticker politics," Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle is expected to veto a Republican plan to limit property tax increases when he signs the state budget today. - Wisconsin State Journal, July 24, 2003

"I think that's just a political gimmick," Doyle said of the freeze plan. - Wisconsin State Journal, June 4, 2004

The limits to state government spending, which Doyle derided as a "gimmick…" - The Daily Reporter, June 5, 2003
Fast forward to 2005. The state budget is once again being put together with limited funds and once again the Legislature is concerned about shifting the tax burden to property taxes. With an election looming in front of him, Doyle suddenly softens his rhetoric on the concept of a "freeze." When the budget hits his desk, he utilizes a historically creative veto that guts the Republican plan, yet still maintains some levy limits on local governments. In a veto that looks like a game of "Scrabble," Doyle cobbles together a sentence that gives his administration the ability to spend $400 million that the Legislature never intended on schools, and hails his signing of a "freeze."

From 2005:

"This is one of the most significant property tax relief plans in the history of the state. With this freeze, we kept the faith with Wisconsin families," Doyle said in a statement today. - The Capital Times, December 12, 2005

"The result of the freeze that I will sign will be that the average property tax on the average home will not go up at all next year, and will actually go down $5" in December 2006, said Doyle, trying to defuse one of the most controversial issues looming in his re-election bid next year. - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 24, 2005.
So why was Doyle so hostile to the concept of a "freeze" in 2003, but so amenable to the idea in 2005? There are several possibilities, none of them mutually exclusive.

First, he wanted to co-opt the term "freeze" from the Republicans. He will now go into the 2006 elections bragging that he was the first governor ever to sign property tax limits, and that he did so without gutting those programs. The GOP can try to hit him for his 2003 veto, but he always has the 2005 freeze rhetoric in his back pocket.

In fact, in July of 2005, Doyle admitted as much:

"They've got a real problem here, because what I did was froze property taxes at the tightest limits in the history of the state and, unlike them, funded education so that our schools aren't taking a tremendous beating," Doyle said. In describing his plan, Doyle has made a point of noting some people's property taxes will go up while others' will go down. Yet he rejected suggestions that, by calling it a freeze, he was creating unrealistic expectations in the minds of property taxpayers.
The second reason he endorsed the freeze concept in 2005 was that the plan really wasn't a "freeze" at all. In fact, Doyle's veto essentially used one time funding as a giveaway to school districts, causing a significant structural deficit in the next biennium (although legislative Republicans aren't exactly innocent on this count either). Doyle put school funding on a credit card to get himself through this election. But the bill comes due in 2007, and only higher taxes are going to bail him out.

In fact, when Doyle announced his vetoes, they were actually hailed by WEAC, the state's largest teachers' union. If there's an endorsement any meaninful tax relief plan should not get, it is from WEAC. WEAC is to meaningful tax relief what Barry Bonds is to integrity.

This about-face isn't unprecedented with Doyle. As a candidate for Governor, he said he believed the Governor shouldn't have broad veto authority. When he actually became Governor, he magically changed his position. In his first term, he vetoed a bill that prevented people from suing restaurants for making them fat. Just last week, he signed the identical bill after being accused of being too cozy with trial attorneys.

It's clear that Jim Doyle the Governor thinks very differently than Jim Doyle the candidate for Governor. Which one you get depends on what time of year it is.