That seems like a crazy idea, doesn’t it? So many people are so obsessed with paying less taxes, that they can hardly think about anything else. Half of our politicians seem to have only one prescription for making America great again: lower taxes. We are just coming out of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s and many people are far from anything like recovery. Why should we pay even more taxes?
Those who repeat endlessly that we need lower taxes hardly ever say anything about what taxes are for, so it’s useful to go back to basics – we pay taxes to provide public services that we all must have. Taxes build and maintain our roads and our airports. Taxes pay police who protect us and firefighters who protect our homes. Taxes pay our armed forces. Taxes pay for the complex services that a modern society needs to function properly: automobile registration, air traffic control, weather prediction, street lighting, water purification, testing of new drugs, maintenance of public parks. None of these functions could even be imagined when our nation was founded. If you travel to places where taxes do not support these services, you might feel like you were returning to the 18th century, when life was short and uncomfortable.
The biggest area of spending of state tax revenues is for education. Nearly 40% of all state spending is for education, from pre-school through public schools, community colleges, and state universities. An even higher proportion of local taxes goes to education, especially property taxes.
In recent years, state funding for public education in Illinois has dropped precipitously: appropriations per student have been cut by 11% from 2008 to 2013. The most recent state budget envisions another 1% cut in school spending. This is not just our problem, but a national problem. The total number of school employees in the US has fallen by 4% since 2008, meaning fewer teachers, fewer aides, and more students per classroom. Of the 11 buildings in District 117, only one is less than 43 years old. While state contributions to our local schools are falling, our local needs are growing. It’s up to us to invest in our own schools.
This Election Day, in exactly five weeks, the following proposition will appear on ballots in Morgan County: “Shall a retailer’s occupation tax and service occupation tax (commonly referred to as a “Sales Tax”) be imposed in Morgan County at a rate of 1% to be used exclusively for school facility purposes?” Morgan County voters will decide whether to create a County sales tax of 1% for school expenditures. The tax would not apply to sales of groceries and medicine, nor to the sale of vehicles. Revenue could only be used for “school facilities”, not salaries or programs. The state of Illinois authorizes counties to create such a tax up to 1%. Such taxes have already been approved in 18 of Illinois 102 counties, but also have been rejected by even more counties.
Morgan county residents may remember that the last time we were faced with a ballot question about increasing our property taxes for education, it was voted down. What is different this time?
This year starting in January, the entire community has been engaged in thinking about how we all want to improve our schools. The Vision 117 Community Engagement process brought hundreds of local residents together in four public sessions to consider a variety of options. The Facilitation Team under the leadership of Mary Fergurson, Gary Hadden and Mike Oldenettel took the findings from these meetings, combined with some local polling results, to make the following recommendations: 1) additions and upgrades to the Turner Junior High School building, in order to create a middle school with grades 6 through 8; 2) fund these changes through a sales tax of 1%, but no property tax increase.
The Vision 117 process demonstrated wide popular support for renovating Turner Junior High, making it into a middle school, and paying for these physical facility changes with a county sales tax instead of higher property taxes. This county sales tax will spread the burden from property owners to everyone who makes local purchases. If this passes, our sales taxes will still be lower than Champaign, Urbana, Springfield, Decatur and Peoria.
Why pay higher taxes? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. A better question is, do we want our local schools to remain at their current, barely acceptable level, or do we want a school system which will be attractive to potential new residents of Jacksonville, both homeowners and businesses? Given the deterioration of school buildings and the cuts in state funding, doing nothing means getting nowhere. If we want Jacksonville to thrive in the 21st century, if we have hope for a better school system, we need to invest in our schools. So I’ll vote YES in November.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 30, 2014