March 11, 2008

LITE House

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

The 2007-2008 Wisconsin Legislature has been bitterly divided, almost from the start.  Budget wrangling set both houses back months.  Policy maneuvering cost us weeks during session.  Even now, at the end of the legislative calendar, partisan gridlock is preventing important legislation—from both houses—from getting passed.

The clock hasn’t run out, though.  We’ve got a week of session left and, afterwards, a special budget-repair session.  Make no mistake: There’s time to pass much-needed reforms on behalf of Wisconsin’s citizens.  But if we’re going to take action, our moment is now.  Partisanship must immediately give way to principle; personal gain must yield to the public good.

In particular, now is the time to pass Senate Bill 403, known as the LITE-House Act.  Senate Bill 403 protects low-income housing providers by clarifying an existing property tax exemption.  Specifically, it ensures that our tax system doesn’t penalize religious or benevolent organizations for building and maintaining low-income housing. 

There is an immediate need for this law in the field of low-income housing.  In just the first two months of 2008, Milwaukee County saw over 1,100 foreclosures, a jump of nearly 40% over last year.  With Wisconsin mired in a housing crisis, we need to focus on eliminating barriers to those who wish to help solve our state’s housing needs.  Senate Bill 403 does just that.

I was pleased to work with a number of my Republican colleagues in crafting the bill.  Representative Mark Gottlieb (R-Port Washington) was especially helpful in the process.  Partnering with Rep. Gottlieb confirmed for me that bipartisan efforts—even in this Legislature—are not only possible but, oftentimes, lead to improved bills.

Sadly, not everyone at the Capitol shares my enthusiasm for Senate Bill 403.  Myths about the bill’s meaning are threatening to sink months of bipartisan efforts.  Some people have inaccurately claimed that it changes existing doctrine or that it omits certain groups from important tax exemptions.  The reality is that Senate Bill 403 is narrowly tailored to codify the exemption for low-income housing without affecting tax-exempt status for any other groups.  It is not new law; it merely clarifies existing legal doctrine.

It would be tragic if misguided attacks made by misinformed groups derailed Senate Bill 403.  Too many citizens are depending on the bill for housing.  Too many religious and benevolent organizations are counting on it as they pursue charitable agendas.

But the fight over Senate Bill 403 goes beyond any single piece of legislation.  It gets to the heart of how this Legislature will go down in history.  Will we, like Legislatures before us, set aside partisan bickering and do what we know to be right for Wisconsin? Or will we persist in using constituencies and legislation as pawns in petty, political game-playing?

Passing Senate Bill 403 would be a giant step in the right direction.  I, for one, pray that this Legislature takes that step.  Throughout our state, time is winding down.