The PJ Tatler

Would Voters Let School Children Suffer Without Heat?

kids-and-extreme-cold-weather-article

Should school districts be able to raise taxes without voter approval to provide for critical maintenance needs? Legislators in Minnesota from both sides of the aisle think so. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

A longstanding school funding law allows 25 Minnesota school districts to raise residents’ property taxes for maintenance funds without direct voter approval. The rest of the districts… don’t have that luxury. That’s led to a big gap in funding among districts for things like carpet replacement, security upgrades and heating and cooling modernization.

State Sen. Kevin Dahle [a Democrat] wants to change that arrangement, extending the taxation power to districts statewide. He and other bill proponents call it a matter of fairness. Most of the 25 districts on the list are in the [Twin Cities] metro area…

The disparity can lead some schools stuck with poor facilities that can distract students, proponents say, and siphon funding away from things like teachers and textbooks.

“It’s not fair. A building ages the same across the state,” said state Sen. Karin Housley, a Republican who represents Forest Lake and co-authored the Dahle bill.

The bill from Dahle, a Northfield Democrat, would require Minnesota to chip in funding for districts with lower property tax bases to help equalize their take. A state facilities working group estimated last year that requirement would cost Minnesota about $300 million in its first three years.

That’s too much state spending for Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Republican from Mazeppa. The chairman of the House Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division said lawmakers shouldn’t take taxation decisions out of voters’ hands.

Dahle and others say voters would still have a say because they elect school board members. Drazkowski dismissed that. He suggested another way to make things fair: stripping the 25 districts of the ability to tax without a ballot question.

Drazkowski has it right. If fairness is the goal, then restore the right of voters to determine whether their taxes will be raised. Don’t strip that right from everyone statewide.

As proves typical whenever government officials seek more of our money to spend, they paint an image of freezing children distracted from learning. We’re meant to perceive a dichotomy between fixing such problems (by raising taxes) and neglecting them (by not).

In this case, the bill’s sponsors imply an even starker dichotomy. The issue isn’t raising taxes so much as who gets to decide whether they are raised. What proponents of this bill are really implying is that voters won’t raise their own taxes to address critical maintenance issues, that voters will let their own children freeze.

There are two appropriate responses to that. First, if we suspend our disbelief long enough to imagine such a thing would ever happen, so what? If voters don’t want to raise their own taxes, they’ll live with the consequences. That’s their prerogative.

Of course, the notion that voters would let their kids freeze before raising revenue proves dubious on its face. In truth, voters may simply demand prioritization of some needs above others.

That’s what school districts want to avoid. So we get pitched the specter of money diverted from “teachers and textbooks,” as if that’s the only place it could come from.

(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here.)