Tax Man: Todd Berry fights for taxpayers as head of WISTAX
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.
His father was an engineer who had several patents for surgical equipment, and his mother worked at UW Hospitals. Berry has a doctoral degree from UW-Madison and two master’s degrees: one in planning and policy analysis from the graduate school of design at Harvard and a second from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He served as Wisconsin’s assistant secretary of revenue and spent a decade in the marketing department for Jones Dairy Farm in Fort Atkinson before joining WISTAX in 1993.
So what, in his opinion, is the current state of the state? “The glass is half empty, and half full,” Berry responds. Moving from a multibillion-dollar deficit to a $760 million surplus was progress, but the process took its toll in political capital. A longtime proponent of a state rainy day fund, Berry has watched governor after governor spending — rather than saving — money whenever it becomes available.
“It doesn’t matter if you use [available money] to increase school funding, as Gov. Thompson did, or increase Medicaid and school spending, as Gov. Doyle did, or most recently, cut some taxes, as Gov. Walker did. In a pure accounting sense, they’re all the same in that if you have a surplus and you commit it in one way or another, it’s not there to protect you from the vagaries of the economy.”
At the end of each workday, Berry escapes to the empty nest he shares with wife Margaret and their Welsh corgi, Kuma. When he’s not working with Kuma on agility training, tending to his perennial garden, or reading a favorite historical biography, you’ll likely find him expressing himself on a canvas with acrylics, an interest he’s recently rekindled.
“I never acquired the skills for watercolors and I’m too antsy for oil painting, although I’d prefer it,” he admits. “It just doesn’t dry fast enough.”
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