Yesterday’s Column — The SILO Bunch

A bunch of state lawmakers wants to curtail your control over your pennies. Don’t fret. They mean well.

They want to take the 10-year local-option sales tax for school buildings — the one some of you around here voted for just last year — and make it a permanent statewide tax. All 99 counties have the local tax, so surely no one’s going to mind.

The kids will get shiny new schools. And pennies not spent on those shiny new schools will be used to cut property taxes, the well-meaning bunch promises. Rural schools will get more dough. Urban schools will get more dough. Even the roads will get more dough through a higher use tax.

Can you imagine a rosier scenario? This is Frank Capra stuff.

Never mind that 10 years ago, the first year I covered our grand General Assembly, backers of a local-option school tax shoved it through by promising that local voters would always have the final say. It would never be a permanent tax, they pledged. They had to make those promises, or else there would be no penny tax for shiny new schools.

Things have changed. Local control is out. A new crowd is in.

So what’s changed?

You might think local voters aren’t stepping up to build shiny new schools, except that all 99 counties approved a penny tax for school buildings. Twenty-five counties approved it twice. And according to the State Department of Education’s last report, 20 of 25 bond issue referendums held in 2005-2006 passed. Three of the plans that failed still got more than 50 percent of the vote. You need 60 percent for passage, thanks to another great legislative idea.

But if the well-meaning bunch gets its way, all those voters who thought they were approving a temporary local tax will get a news flash. It’s no longer local and it’s no longer temporary. And you no longer have the power to turn off the spigot. Surprised?

Now hold on, the well-meaning bunch insists. Citizens could still call for a vote if they don’t like the way their local school board is spending pennies. They can demand changes.

Voters are still in control, they argue.

Sure they are, as long as the Legislature doesn’t change its mind down the line and decide to spend your pennies on something else really, really important. The well-meaning bunch insists it would take an insurmountable two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to switch uses or scoop pennies. No chance.

But they forget that powerful phrase “not withstanding.” Put those words in a bill, and magic happens.
Things get surmountable in a hurry. Solid promises get slushy. Surprise again.

You’d think smart folks at the Statehouse could figure out a way to help rural schools and cut property taxes without taking power from voters. Surely there are other solutions.

Maybe, instead of voters, they’re thinking of their special-interest allies or builders who see a permanent penny as good for business. If Democrats are going to pass a statewide smoking ban to help casinos and hand tax breaks to Microsoft, why not?

That’s cynical and unfair, the bunch insists. But, hey, I mean well.

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