Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds Brown County sales tax

March 4, 2022 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A half-percent sales tax that Brown County officials implemented in 2018 is legal even though it doesn’t result in a dollar-for-dollar reduction in property taxes, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The county board imposed the tax in 2018 to cover $147 million in capital projects. The tax is set to expire in 2024. County officials argued that without the tax they would have had to borrow the money for the projects and assume more debt, in turn forcing property tax increases.

The Brown County Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit alleging the sales tax was illegal because it doesn’t directly reduce the county’s property tax levy as required by state law. Circuit Judge John Zakowski upheld the tax. The association appealed the decision. The 3rd District Court of Appeals kicked the case directly to the Supreme Court, saying it raises questions of how and when the state requirement applies.

The high court ruled 5-2 that the sales tax is valid because it prevents the property tax levy from increasing. Writing for the majority, liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said state law doesn’t require a dollar-for-dollar reduction. She pointed to a legal opinion then-Democratic Attorney General Jim Doyle issued in 1998 that reached the same conclusion.

“Because the (sales tax) does in fact directly reduce the property tax levy by funding projects that would otherwise have been paid for through additional debt obligations, we determine that the (tax) is permissible,” she wrote.

Conservatives Annette Ziegler and Rebecca Bradley dissented. Rebecca Bradley wrote that the majority’s opinion defies basic logic. Preventing an increase in property taxes doesn’t equate to a reduction, she argued.

“In order to reduce a property tax levy, it must actually go down,” Rebecca Bradley wrote. “In this case, it didn’t.”

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, represented the taxpayers alliance. Anthony LoCoco, the firm’s deputy counsel, called the decision disappointing but the firm remains “committed to ensuring that governments at all levies follow the law and respect the rights of taxpayers.”