9.30.2009

"I hardly ever consult with anyone and they very rarely consult with me,"

- Wisconsin State Assemblyman Marlin Schneider

Schneider's quote comes from a piece about his proposed legislation to exempt buildings housing Wisconsin newspapers from property taxes, as well as exempting all personal property used directly and exclusively to produce a newspaper.

I'm generally concerned about losing newspapers given the role they play in serving as public forums and meaningful government watchdogs at all levels.  Yet I'm not quite sure how I feel about Schneider's bill.  Lifting the burden of property taxes could be characterized as an indirect "bailout" of newspapers, as some have suggested about possible federal bills drafted along similar lines.  A newspaper's independence - or, also critical to a paper, appearance of independence - might be affected.  And what's more, Schneider's bill, unlike the federal proposals, does not require newspapers to become not-for-profit entities to take advantage of the tax break.

In many ways, it brings to mind the occasionally contentious situation at UW-Madison between the Badger Herald, which loves to stress its full-fledged independence as a student publication, and The Daily Cardinal, which occupies a University building (even though there is an ancient agreement that some say undercuts the dependence argument).  Outside the campus boundaries, though, I think there is a true risk that a publication might take a more lenient approach to covering state government if it knows its life-saving property tax exemption is potentially at stake. 

The root of the problem for Wisconsin papers, as with papers elsewhere, is clearly the decline in classified advertising revenues.  One question that must be answered before supporting or opposing the Schneider newspaper bill is this: presuming newspapers provide an irreplaceable, essential public service, is the decline in classifed revenues an irreverisble, systemic problem that the government must intervene to offset - or must publications alone bear the burden, a harsh one perhaps, of finding creative new revenue solutions in the internet era?

Beyond that, even if you ultimately think the former applies, the real property exemption aspect of the bill could be opposed as yet another unfunded mandate.  The impact would likely be rather insignificant in most regards, but the state would seemingly be mandating a reduction in property tax revenues for local municipalities that local municipalities and local voters did not necessarily want.  Tailoring the bill to permit individual municipalities to grant property tax exemptions to those owning buildings that house newspaper operations might be a more attractive way to proceed, although, admittedly, it would lack uniformity and it raises some of the same issues of the appearance of an independent press.