Political impact of tax votes questioned

Legislators consider future voter support as school districts ask residents for funds.
Tuesday, April 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — With over 100 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 determines aid for public schools across the state — for putting schools in their current predicaments.

Others, mostly Democrats but also 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 have been 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 to the significance of the large number of districts.

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, not the state as a complete unit.

Some 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 raises.

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. This is not the case 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 dimish or hide the appeal of tax increases.

And, even if Missourians seem to support increased taxation by approving local school district measures, this might not translate to the legislative level, said Senate Education Committee Chairman Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff. In an election year, he said, few legislators 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 Chairwoman Kathlyn Fares, R-Webster Groves, said she would also be concerned about later asking districts to accept even higher taxes than those they had just passed.

“Districts feel like that if they do the local effort, they can be sure of receiving state money,” Fares said.

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