The Property Tax No One Knows

The Personal Property Tax: Fair? Unfair? Or Just Outdated?

January 2016


Wisconsin’s personal property tax is unknown to most residents as it applies only to certain business property. The tax is riddled with exemptions, and the $287 million it now generates is about one-fourth the inflation-adjusted amount collected in 1971. The tax also raises questions about the consistent treatment of property; e.g., a chair owned by a business is taxed, but one owned by a homeowner is not.

Owners of real estate in Wisconsin are aware of the state’s property tax; they are reminded of it every December when they open their tax bill.
While homeowners receive one bill, many business owners receive two. Like the typical property owner, they receive one for their building and land. But many business owners receive a second tax bill for the business’ personal property, such as office chairs, desks, tools, and many other items.
Unknown to most citizens and unliked by most people it affects, the personal property tax is a shell of its original, following decades of exempting both household and business property.
In the 1830s, before statehood, there was no income or sales tax in Wisconsin. Funding of the territorial government was primarily from property taxes. But, almost two centuries ago, the property tax was a very different tax.
Not only was real property—land and buildings—taxed then, so too was personal property, such as stocks, bonds, jewelry, furniture, livestock, crops, inventories, and vehicles.