Robb offers school funding strategy

Thursday, March 10, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:11 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

It was a short debut for a plan to overhaul the formula for funding public education, but the idea probably will get a curtain call.

The plan, designed by Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, would eliminate property taxes in favor of an income tax as the engine for funding public schools.

Individual school districts would still be allowed to keep their property taxes, but the statewide income tax, which would be distributed to the schools on a per-pupil basis, would offset all existing property tax revenue.

“I think that everyone sort of agrees that the property tax has run its course,” Robb said.

The change could result in lower property taxes without lost revenue. That’s something some school officials see as a significant advantage. Columbia Public School District Superintendent Phyllis Chase is among them.

“We have maxed out the ability to fund public education on the backs of property tax owners,” Chase said. “I think it is time we get a little creative and find other ways.”

Robb, a former MU economics professor, campaigned heavily on the plan. Given the push to fix the foundation formula and to end a pending lawsuit, Robb thinks this is the best opportunity to change the whole system.

“You might not get another time to pass something like this,” he said.

Opponents of Robb’s idea, pointing to the tight deadline for fixing the formula, have said his plan would require too many changes.

The joint Senate-House committee assigned to recommend a fix discussed Robb’s plan only once, then spent the rest of its four meetings discussing a proposal by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Shields, whose plan, over three to five years, would cost the state $500 million over and above what the state already spends on public education, said the lawsuit requires action with a sense of urgency and does not allow for the several law and constitutional changes Robb’s plan would require.

Robb faced an uphill battle trying to gain acceptance of his plan, which flies in the face of Shields’. He expects to make headway in the House, however. Many members of the House committee assigned to consider the proposal are new to the discussion, which will give Robb a fresh audience to make his pitch.

“The House is going to start from scratch and will come up with something completely different,” Rep. Bob Johnson, R-Lee’s Summit, said.

Some of Robb’s ideas could be included in these changes. But the Columbia lawmaker said he is already trying to drum up support for his larger recommendations for next session, both inside and outside the Capitol.

“What we need to do is perhaps pass something that’s safe, that’s simply a stopgap that solves the legal issues and look for a permanent and more comprehensive bill for the next session,” Robb said.

Despite its high-priority status, the process continues to be perilous and threatened by temporary derailment.

The biggest potential pitfalls emerging for Shields’ version are how it would factor in local property taxes, how it would use certificates of value to assess personal property more frequently and how a modifier to compensate for cost-of-living differences among districts would affect the distribution of state money.

Rep. Joe Aull, D-Marshall, said he is primarily concerned about the proposal to increase the local burden for districts that, at the urging of state officials, have raised property taxes.

“The higher your levy, the more state money you are going to get,” he said. “With this, the higher your levy, the less state money you’re going to get. I don’t know if it’s fair to the districts that have raised their levy.”

Lawmakers from rural areas, calling certificates of value a government intrusion, are leading the opposition.

“They would never get that passed on the House floor,” Rep. Maynard Wallace, R-Thornfield, said. “It would kill it deader than a doornail.”

Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton, whose committee will deal with Shields’ plan, said compromise will be important but cautioned against expecting too much change.

“Not everyone is going to get everything that they want,” he said. “I can’t please my wife 100 percent of the time. I’m not going to be able to please all of you 100 percent of the time.”

The House committee will hear public testimony on the proposal Monday. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said its first committee meetings on the proposal will begin Tuesday.

Missourian reporter Tara Leitner contributed to this report.

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