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Record number of schools to seek increased taxes

April 05, 2004
By: Alex Yalen
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -- With over one hundred school districts asking their residents to approve increased taxation Tuesday, the public school funding debate could be significantly altered.

Some state lawmakers have chosen to blame the Foundation Formula -- the calculation that distributes aid to public schools across the state -- for putting schools in their current predicament.

But others, mostly Democrats and several Republicans, have said that a lack of revenue is the real problem. They have long sought tax increases as a way to address decreasing state aid. Thus far, they've met by controversy and partisan rancor.

In Tuesday's election a record 114 school districts are subjecting various tax increases to widespread public approval -- or disapproval. State legislators have various answers as to why that's significant, if it's significant, or why it's not significant at all.

Some state Democratic and Republican lawmakers warned that there are a number of reasons to use caution in interpreting the election, especially because Tuesday's vote applies to individual districts only, and not the state as a complete unit.

Some state legislators say Tuesday's vote on local tax increases has little relationship to the statewide tax increases that Gov. Bob Holden has proposed.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said that there is a substantial difference between local taxes and a statewide tax. Primarily, he said, local school boards are individually responsible for campaigning for their tax raise.

Some do it by "demonstrating need, cajoling, threatening," he said.

But more than anything else, Bearden said, the application of a local tax is tangible to a voter.

"People know their money is staying in their own district," he said, making them more likely to vote for it. Not so in a statewide tax raise, where "nothing is guaranteed."

Democratic Minority Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, thinks that the nature of the tax being raised -- the property tax -- combined with controversies over how land value is measured also makes it less likely to be a meaningful measure of popular support.

"It's the most disliked tax of all," he said, which could hide or diminish the appeal of tax increases.

And, even if Missourians seem to support increased taxation by approving local school district actions, it might not translate to the legislative level, said Senate Education Committee Chair Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff. In an election year, he said, few want to be linked to tax raises, no matter the popularity.

"It might be a gauge, a listening post, if enough of them (the levies) pass," Foster said. "But that assumes the legislature was listening."

House Education Appropriation Committee Chair Kathlyn Fares, R-Webster Groves, said she would also be concerned about later asking districts to accept even higher taxes than the ones they had just passed.

"Districts feel like that if they do the local effort, they can be sure of recieving state money," Fares said. "Are we going to ask them, 'you're willing to do this much -- are you willing to do more?'"

Though the election's significance, especially in light of tax increase proposals in circulation, is unclear, but some legislators agree that having 114 schools -- just over one-fifth of the entire state's school districts -- asking for is a bad sign.

"This is an act of desperation," Jacob said.