Tax Man: Todd Berry fights for taxpayers as head of WISTAX
Todd Berry in his perennial garden.
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As president of the nonpartisan, independent Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX), president Todd Berry, 63, uses the organization’s research to help local, municipal, and government leaders do their jobs more effectively, while educating the public on how well their elected officials are caring for the state’s financial well-being. Despite WISTAX’s claim that it presents accurate, objective research, the findings often attract criticism from one side or another.
“[These days], you’ll have people on opposite sides of issues saying black is white and white is black, when actually both will be wrong,” Berry says. It makes the organization’s work all the more important, he says, but more difficult than ever before. “People need facts, but political activists want to discredit anything that may challenge [them].”
WISTAX is Wisconsin’s oldest private government research organization. “We do no lobbying, no advocacy, and no electioneering,” he states, though naysayers lurk around every corner, ready to challenge, argue, and spin. “I believe I am the only person in the state who has been attacked publicly on live television statewide by governors of opposing parties,” he remarks. “Not to mention what legislators and other public officials are saying in private. Facts and truths are often painful, whoever is in power.”
WISTAX is now warning about the impact of a looming demographic shift. An aging population will result in worker shortages, and the state will have to import younger people. He hopes lawmakers will listen, as they have in the past. “I think it’s fair to say that in the last decade, governors and legislators wouldn’t be as focused on the state’s fiscal solvency had it not been for our reporting on the condition of state finances, debt, and bond ratings.”
WISTAX research led to state income tax changes in 1999 after the group’s reports showed that Wisconsin had not been adjusting its income tax laws for inflation, leading to some “fairly significant, unlegislated tax increases on lower-middle and middle-income people.” The organization also raised red flags about the state’s “fiscal mischief in 2006, 2007, and 2008 before the state budget started falling apart.”
“The point is,” Berry says, “government can’t forecast the economy or tax collections with complete accuracy, and it cannot afford to budget to the very edge. If you don’t manage finances with a long-term perspective and with some degree of care, you will have tax increases, spending cuts, and a lot of political division, and we’ve had all of that in spades.”
Early on, Berry remembers wanting to be a historian, architect, or teacher. “In a sense, that’s what I’ve done,” he says.