Wisconsin would likely see defunding of police, education, roads and more if millionaires had to pay no higher rate than essential workers.
Republican candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch appeared to flirt with the idea of supporting a flat tax in Wisconsin this week, elevating an idea that economists have described as unfair, regressive “class warfare” that benefits the rich.
Kleefisch, who served as Lt. Governor under former Gov. Scott Walker, did not explicitly endorse a flat tax—which requires all taxpayers to pay the same rate, regardless of income—but entertained the idea in a Monday appearance on WSAU-AM.
During the interview, Kleefisch called for instituting “transformational income tax reform,” ending taxes on retirement income, and criticized the notion of a progressive income tax system, which requires wealthier residents to pay higher tax rates than those with less money.
Wisconsin’s progressive tax system, first instituted in 1911, predates the federal government’s income tax system, which went into effect two years later—a reality Kleefisch pointed out in an unusual way.
“Wisconsin literally gave America the progressive income tax—whoops,” Kleefisch said. “I say that it happened in 1911 and that’s how it happened because women didn’t have the right to vote yet. Women would never have allowed such foolish policy.”
“We have the opportunity right now to fix a generational wrong that Wisconsin gave to the world, so let’s just fix it. Let’s do transformational income tax reform.”
Wisconsin’s income tax rates range from 3.54% for the lowest-income earners to 7.65% for individuals earning $267,000 or more. During her interview, Kleefisch didn’t give specifics, but said Wisconsin’s tax rates should be lower than neighboring states, a race to the bottom among tax brackets that generate funds to support schools, roads, and other services. “Let’s beat our competitors in the Midwest,” she said.
Illinois has a flat tax of 4.95%, Michigan’s flat tax is 4.25%, and Minnesota’s progressive tax system ranges from 5.3% to just under 10%. While Kleefisch wants to “beat” neighboring states, it’s worth noting that Democrat-led Minnesota, with an even more progressive tax system than Wisconsin, performed “markedly better” in most every metric—jobs, wages, income, poverty, health care, and more–from 2011 to 2018, when Republicans were in complete control of Wisconsin.
If Kleefisch is elected and installs a flat tax, she would be following in the footsteps of Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has endorsed Kleefisch and recently signed a law instituting a 3.9% flat tax in Iowa beginning in 2026. The new law will raise taxes on the poorest Iowans—who currently pay just 0.33%—and give a huge tax cut to the wealthiest, who currently pay 8.5%.
A flat tax may sound intuitively fair, but for someone who earns $20,000 a year, paying 4% of their income in taxes is much more harmful than for someone earning $2,000,000 per year.
Kleefisch suggested she would want an even lower rate than Iowa’s, which would serve as a giant tax cut for the very rich at a time when income inequality continues to worsen. It would also deprive Wisconsin of substantial revenue, which could lead to spending cuts across the board, in areas ranging from public safety to education.
A flat tax would not be the first time Kleefisch supported controversial policies with harmful consequences. While serving as Lt. Governor under Walker, Kleefisch supported the original Foxconn deal that would have given nearly $3 billion in state tax credits to the company, if they hit certain hiring and investment thresholds.
Kleefisch also stood closely by Walker as he implemented his radical conservative agenda by:
- Cutting taxes for the rich and corporations while eliminating tax relief for low-income Wisconsin families.
- Effectively eliminating public-sector employees’ ability to collectively bargain and forcing them to pay more in health insurance and retirement costs, reducing the take-home pay of workers by between 8 and 10%.
- Repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, which implemented minimum pay requirements for workers on public construction projects. A study found Walker’s move led to losses in pay for construction workers without lowering costs for state and local governments.
- Opposing an increase of the minimum wage in Wisconsin, which remains a measly $7.25 per hour.
- Signing a “right-to-work” bill into law that weakened the ability of unions to collectively bargain for better pay and benefits.
- Gutting education funding, overriding local governments’ paid sick leave policies, and preventing tens of thousands of lower-income Wisconsinites from accessing health insurance by refusing to embrace the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.
Kleefisch is not the only Republican candidate for governor to flirt with a flax tax, either. State Rep. Timothy Ramthun told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was open to implementing a flat tax or eliminating the income tax altogether, but wanted to take a closer look at the ideas.
“Everything’s on the table for me,” Ramthun said.
The Republican push to overhaul Wisconsin’s progressive tax system isn’t new. Earlier this year, state Sen. and candidate for Lt. Governor Roger Roth introduced a bill to gradually eliminate the state income tax, which could cost the state billions of dollars a year and lead to huge cuts to public services.
“It would starve the state of resources, and then what resources we did have would be paid disproportionately by people who can’t afford it,” Tamarine Cornelius, director of the Budget Project, told UpNorthNews in February.
The rest of Wisconsin’s tax system is already tilted towards the rich, so eliminating the progressive income tax would only increase the burden on middle- and lower-class families.
“Already, [the rich] aren’t paying their fair share,” Cornelius said. “Well, this would turbocharge that.”
In contrast to the Republican candidates, Gov. Tony Evers supports Wisconsin’s current progressive income tax system while also backing tax cuts for the middle-class. During his first term as governor, Evers has signed two Republican-sponsored tax cuts targeted at working Wisconsinites after promising to lower income taxes for the middle class by at least 10%.
Evers has said that these cuts will deliver income tax cuts of 15% or more to 86% of Wisconsin taxpayers.