Edgewater money (copy)

Robert Dunn, developer of the controversial Edgewater hotel project, went to the state Public Finance Authority for tax-exempt financing after a tax-subsidy pact with Madison officials fell through.  

State Journal archives

A recent published report brought to light the fact that a Wisconsin group has been engaging in tax-free debt deals worth billions of dollars.

As reported Oct. 14 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Public Finance Authority — a government entity comprised of the city of Lancaster and counties of Adams, Bayfield, Marathon and Waupaca — was empowered by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers in the 2011 state budget to refinance projects, purchase bonds and delegate some of its powers to its officers or board members. Creation of such entities was legalized in 2010, when Gov. Jim Doyle and Democrats held power in Madison.

The Finance Authority has completed 238 bond deals around the country totaling $8.3 billion, for projects ranging from a conference center and parking garage to charter schools and a massive shopping mall and entertainment complex in New Jersey, the Journal Sentinel reported. One project was in the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam.

Only $168 million of the deals — about 2 percent — have been in Wisconsin.

Many of the bond offerings were sold to sophisticated investors and did not receive a credit rating from an independent agency that would assess how risky they were. State lawmakers are now asking why the Finance Authority should have powers such as the ability to issue bonds for projects that are outside Wisconsin.

“I’m skeptical of the public benefit,” said Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, who voted against the state budget in large part because of Finance Authority provisions. “It doesn’t make sense to have a local public agency created by Wisconsin taxpayers and the Wisconsin Legislature that doesn’t provide public benefit to the people of Wisconsin.”

We share Rep. Allen’s skepticism.

In question is whether one of the Finance Authority’s bond deals produces the kind of public benefit needed to qualify for tax-free status from the federal government.

In July, the Internal Revenue Service told the Finance Authority of its proposed conclusion that the bonds for a Dallas luxury tower development shouldn’t be exempt from federal taxes.

The investors who had bought the bonds had done so expecting the interest they paid would be free from federal income taxes. The Finance Authority’s outside attorney, the San Francisco firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, concluded the bonds should be tax-free.

Mark O’Connell, the executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association — one of the Finance Authority’s sponsoring groups — insists the Finance Authority has no legal risk from a potential investor lawsuit and that the group will be successful in challenging the IRS finding.

If you’re a resident of Lancaster or one of the four counties that established the Public Finance Authority, you’d better hope O’Connell is right. If he’s wrong, and the IRS ruling is upheld, it would appear to open the door to the bond-buying investors filing suit, since they were promised a tax-free return on their investment. That would bring the liability into your city, your county.

Wisconsin governmental agencies should serve interests in Wisconsin, and only in Wisconsin. The tax dollars of Wisconsinites shouldn’t be going toward something which is of minimal or no value to anyone in the Badger State.