Brown County case to test Wisconsin’s sales tax limits


The Wisconsin Supreme Court is going to decide what “directly reducing the property tax levy” actually means.

The Supreme Court last month agreed to hear a challenge to Brown County’s 2017 sales tax that county leaders earmarked for $100 million in new projects. The problem is, as the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty explained its court challenge, Wisconsin law designates sales tax dollars for property tax reduction.

“‘Only for the purpose of directly reducing the property tax levy’ means exactly what it says: sales tax proceeds must be used to immediately offset the property tax levy,” WILL deputy counsel Anthony LoCoco told The Center Square. “Brown County is arguing that it can instead use sales tax revenue to pay for millions of dollars of brand new spending on the theory that it would have paid for the spending with property taxes in the absence of a sales tax.”

Brown County earmarked the sales tax money for a jail expansion, a portion of a new science building at UW-Green Bay, and to build an office for the county medical examiner.

The legal battle over the sales tax worked its way through the courts in 2018 and 2019. A judge ruled for the county last year, but WILL and the Brown County Taxpayers Association appeals the decision. An appeals court certified the case to the Supreme Court back in March. The Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted the case last month.

LoCoco says the trial court judge essentially said “if the Legislature wished to require that sales tax proceeds be used for what it called a ‘dollar-for-dollar reduction of a county’s property tax levy,’ then the Legislature needed to be more specific.”

LoCoco hopes the Supreme Court sticks to the law as it was written.

“Brown County’s argument is the avoidance of a hypothetical increase,” LoCoco said. “Even under its own theory, Brown County could not have paid for its new spending projects with property taxes, because levy limits sharply curtail the amount by which the County may increase property taxes in a given year. No matter how it is packaged, Brown County’s sales tax is illegal.”

There’s no date scheduled for arguments in the case.

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