Education, Tax Burdens Present Voters With Tough Choices

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:30pm EDT

( - On Election Day 2003, voters in a number of cities and counties will decide questions related to public education funding and tax increases.

"Everybody is looking for money somewhere," said Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties, who pointed to homeland security costs and funding cuts from state legislatures as factors driving the scramble for money.

"Local governments are about saturated in how much tax they can generate at the local level," Byers said. However, next year's presidential election will bring the lion's share of tax referenda and ballot initiatives, she indicated. "They don't put many on the ballots in the odd years...because not a lot of people vote in the odd years," Byers explained. "Lots of them next year."

Voters in Maine will decide whether to get the state to pay 55 percent of all education costs, including high-cost special education. The state currently pays about 43 percent.

Alternatively, voters could choose a plan (Question 1B) supported by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and many members of the Legislature that would limit the tax increase to "essential services" and phase it in over five years. Or, voters could choose a none-of-the above option (Question 1C).

Elizabeth Hacket, state coalitions manager for Americans for Tax Reform, is leading a campaign against the tax measures, along with Bob Stone of Common Sense for Maine Taxpayers.

Efforts to sell the tax measures to voters as a way to lower property taxes are misleading, Hacket argued. "Both are significant tax increases that offer no tax relief. It's not tax relief. It's tax shifting," she said. "There's no guarantee that [property owners] will see that $264 million in reduced property taxes. Nor is there a guarantee that a 15 percent reduction in local property taxes [from local governments] will ensue," as some groups claim.

If the tax measure passes, Hacket said, the state Legislature will be forced to cut other state programs in order to come up with the extra education money.

Moreover, Maine already has the highest tax burden in the nation, according to Hacket.

In Colorado, voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow the taxable portion of residential property to increase 7.96 to 8 percent beginning in 2005.

New York State, meanwhile, will decide a different form of spending increase for public schools. One referendum would repeal constitutional limits on the amount of debt school districts in 57 small cities can incur. And a separate ballot question would make it easier for municipalities to spend more by allowing them to exclude sewer debt from their borrowing limits for another decade.

The state Conservative Party has mounted a campaign against the measures, arguing that increased debt limits will mean extravagant spending.

In New Jersey, the state Libertarian Party is opposing a measure to force taxpayers to pay $200 million for repairs to dams and the dredging of lakes and streams, nearly half of which are on private property.

Some property owners, however, have argued that they can't afford the repairs themselves. One such case reportedly involves a small dam built for a colonial-era gristmill, an asset the owner has tried unsuccessfully to divest.

At the local level, a property tax increase is also in the offing for voters in Duluth, Minn. The complicated ballot initiative to hike funding for public schools would generate an estimated $4.9 million in revenue annually over five years -- $2.7 million from local taxes plus an additional $2.2 million from state taxpayers.

The ballot question itself indicates a general education revenue increase of $365.60 per resident; however, advocates of the tax hike have said the amount will actually vary from taxpayer to taxpayer. The owner of a $100,000 home, for example, would pay an extra $70 per year, proponents say.

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