Door shut on dark store legislation
Area lawmakers expect measure to return next session
By Kevin Boneske
HOWARD – Three Republican state representatives who each represent a portion of the village of Howard appeared Monday, March 26, before the Howard village board.
They discussed what happened or didn’t happen in the most recent session of the Wisconsin Legislature.
The issue that generated the most discussion with the board related to the effort to eliminate the dark store loophole, in which commercial retailers and manufacturers could challenge the assessed value of their properties by claiming they are worth the same or close to the lower assessed value of similar but empty buildings.
Companies which challenged their assessments in court and won would be able to receive a retroactive refund with the affected municipalities having to make up the difference with that lost property tax revenue, with homeowners having more of the tax burden.
That was the case with the Menards store in Howard when the village settled with the retailer instead of going through a prolonged legal battle and facing additional court costs.
Rep. David Steffen, who previously served on the Howard village board for eight years and is in his second two-year term in Madison, noted a bill to end the loophole didn’t pass in this legislative session.
“It’s something that we’re going to work on next session to ensure that there’s a proper handling of that issue going forward,” Steffen said.
Village President Burt McIntyre said if the dark store loophole wouldn’t be addressed legislatively, “it’s going to cost the individual taxpayer a lot more money.”
McIntyre noted he and Village Administrator Paul Evert testified before a legislative committee in favor of the legislation, about which he asked, “Does this have a chance next session?”
Rep. Jim Steineke, the Assembly majority leader from Kaukauna, said he was informed by Senate President Roger Roth of Appleton, who sponsored the measure, that there weren’t enough votes in the Senate to end the dark-story loophole this session.
“In speaking with Senator Roth and Representative (Rob) Brooks (the Assembly sponsor from Saukville), the best path forward seemed to be the idea of bringing together a (Legislative) Council study committee to look at this issue in depth over the course of the summer,” Steineke said. “They can bring stakeholders together. They can put a bigger campaign together with more legislators, more involvement from people throughout every different sector, every different side of this issue to try to come up with solutions leading into the next legislative session, so that hopefully we have some kind of a compromise on Jan. 1 that we can move forward with.”
When the lawmakers were asked by McIntyre whether there is “any doubt in any legislator’s mind where the local communities stand on this issue,” Steineke said the League of Wisconsin Municipalities “has done a good job letting everybody know exactly where people stand on the issue.”
The League of Wisconsin Municipalities held a Dark Store Day last December to urge people to contact their legislators in favor of ending the loophole.
State Rep. John Nygren of Marinette told the board the reason lawyers representing companies that use the dark store loophole have been successful is because “the courts are listening.”
“What’s got to be part of the equation is making sure we address any type of ambiguity that’s currently in the law,” said Nygren, who also noted a compromise to the legislation didn’t move forward for approval this session.
Trustee Ray Suennen asked the three lawmakers about the legislative influence of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which opposed ending the dark store loophole and claimed that “would just make it easier for aggressive assessors to raise property taxes on businesses.”
Steineke said the law would have to be changed “to allow these assessments to occur the way they have been occurring.”
“In essence, people look at this as changing the law in order to allow tax increases on businesses,” Steineke said. “Right or wrong, that’s how some people view it.”
When Suennen noted most of the tax reduction businesses are able to receive from the dark store loophole would fall back on the residents – information that if more well-known could provide more pressure on lawmakers to act – Steineke said he didn’t disagree.
“We want to make sure the property taxes aren’t going to go up,” Steineke said. “That’s part of the reason I think that there is going to be impetus behind the idea of coming to some kind of fix on this…”
Steffen said he has found it takes longer to get something done on the state level than the local level.
“The fact that it’s probably going to take two sessions for us to get this done is not unusual,” Steffen said. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the process.”