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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007

Corporate Taxes a Target, Again

Income disclosure and loopholes get attention

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The state Department of Revenue just reported that while individuals paid more income tax this year, corporations’ income tax payments decreased 12% over the summer months. The cause? Shrinking profits, the business community argues. But is that really the case? It’s hard to tell, since corporations in Wisconsin don’t have to disclose income and other financial information to the public. Therefore, it’s difficult to identify which corporations are paying their fair share of income taxes, and which ones do a little accounting magic and make their profits—and their tax liability—disappear.

One fix is being proposed by Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), who is introducing the Corporate Tax Accountability Act this week. The bill would require large corporations to make annual public disclosures of their income and tax write-offs. When that is made available to the public, then legislators and taxpayers can make informed decisions about tax policy, Hansen argues.

The bill is supported by research from the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future (IWF), based in Milwaukee. The organization will release a new study this week on corporate tax loopholes, which cost the state $643 million in 2006. (You read that right—$643 million.) Last year, IWF found that 67% of all corporations that filed taxes in Wisconsin in 2003 paid no state corporate income taxes. (You read that right, too—67% of all corporations paid no state corporate income tax.) Dr. Jack Norman, research director for the IWF, claims that large, multi-state corporations are able to reduce their tax burden in the state while small businesses shoulder the responsibility.

Picking Sides: Although the majority of Milwaukee’s elected officials support a bill that would end pay for police officers as soon as they are fired—no matter if they’ve been accused of committing a felony, misdemeanor or rule violation—one Milwaukee Democrat made a last-ditch effort to substantially weaken it. State Sen. Jeff Plale, who represents the city’s East Side, Bay View and southern suburbs, introduced an amendment to the Coggs-Toles bill that would limit the pay change so that it would only affect officers who are accused of committing felonies. Not surprisingly, this version of the bill is backed by the Milwaukee Police Association, which has fought tooth and nail against the original version of the bill. The amendment went down in defeat, luckily, and Plale then voted for the clean version of the bill.

Picking Sides, Part II: One of the lingering, negative side effects of the delayed budget is school aid. As it stands now, it’s lopsided, and favors wealthier school districts over poorer ones. Gov. Jim Doyle and state senators from both sides of the aisle have proposed a fix, but, as a Tomah Journal editorial points out, state Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (RWest Salem) “appears content to let the school funding bill rot in committee.” The editorial continues: “It’s just a matter of the Speaker picking sides. Is he on the side of Tomah (-$60,000) or Elmbrook ( $1.5 million)? Sparta (-$10,000) or Mequon-Thiensville ( $800,000)? Black River Falls (-$43,000) or New Berlin ( $687,000)? Necedah (-$10,000) or Williams Bay ( $147,000)?” And who donates more to Republican campaigns? Tomah or Elmbrook?

Mortgage Mess Affects Tax Collections: Milwaukee County Treasurer Dan Diliberti told a county finance committee last week that property tax delinquencies in the 18 suburbs have increased 40% in the past two years. (The rate is higher in the city.) And it’s not because of higher property taxes, as hard-line conservatives would argue, because property taxes have only seen marginal increases. Diliberti told the committee that the increased delinquencies are due to improper lending practices, which encouraged people to buy homes they couldn’t afford out in the suburbs, as well as higher heating bills and the stalled housing market. Diliberti said the lagging tax collections affect operating funds for the county. He said that residents should be cautious about risky lending schemes—not only subprime loans, but reverse mortgages, too—and that those who are struggling with their tax payments can work out a payment plan with his office if necessary.

Rehabbing Joe McCarthy: While the Journal Sentinel attempted to provide a balanced look at a new book that seeks to rehabilitate Sen. Joe McCarthy’s image, it left out one detail: The book was written by an ally of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee. The author of Blacklisted by History, conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans, was the founder and director of the National Journalism Center, which, according to SourceWatch, “provides training and assistance in finding jobs [for] conservative journalists” and instructs them in economic theory and policy. During Evans’ tenure, the Bradley Foundation donated $160,000 to the center, helping to ensure that conservative journalists are properly indoctrinated and land jobs with major media outlets.

WTMJ Talker Under Fire: Syndicated right-wing radio host Michael Savage— whose program is aired late at night on WTMJ radio—is suing those who complain about his lunatic rants about Muslims. (Here’s one example: “I don’t wanna hear one more word about Islam. Take your religion and shove it up your behind. I’m sick of you.”) While the free speech advocate is “complaining about others quoting him” in his lawsuit, as The New York Times points out, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is asking for advertisers to pull their spots from Savage’s show. But we’ve got to ask: Does WTMJ really want to create profits that are built on hatred? And does Milwaukee need bigots like Savage on our public airwaves?

Tommy’s Boy Is Indicted—Again: Former Tommy Thompson aide Nicholas Hurtgen is still being pursued by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. Although federal charges were dropped earlier this year, last week Hurtgen was indicted for a second time for allegedly assisting a “fraud scheme,” as the Department of Justice calls it, involving a hospital construction project in Illinois. Hurtgen is being represented by Stephen Hurley, the attorney for Georgia Thompson (no relation to the former governor), whose conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court in April.

To the Brink: Just when it looked as if Senate Democrats would capitulate to the Bush administration’s attempt to grant immunity to telecom companies that are suspected of cooperating with the president’s illegal wiretapping program, the measure was stopped in its tracks, thanks to efforts by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold. The two led the opposition to the Bush-backed bill, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stalled the vote. In a post at Talking Points Memo, Feingold said that telecom companies are already granted immunity if they follow the law. “If companies didn’t follow this law, and cooperated with illegitimate requests for sensitive information, then we should not hand them a ‘get out of jail free’ card after the fact,” he wrote.

Tanzanian Trip: Milwaukee became a sister city to Morogoro, Tanzania, in August, helping to build partnerships that will last decades. Next week, a group of students from the Hope in Tanzania Foundation’s Marquette chapter will travel to Morogoro to help out at a health center, kindergarten, primary/secondary school, an orphanage and government offices. The trip is supported by the Hope in Tanzania Foundation, Johnson Controls, the Lynne Broydrick Group, Billiards Club of America, Sun Ovens International, Don Kim, Gil and Lillian Boese and Club Timbuktu.

An Easy Way to Give: The Diablos Rojos Restaurant Group—which runs Trocadero and Caf Hollander—has launched its “UP 10” program to support urban projects such as trails, parks and playgrounds. The restaurant group will donate 10% of their total sales for the rest of the month and customers can match that donation on their guest check. Co-CEOs Eric Wagner and Mike Eitel hope to raise $25,000 for local groups.