Monday, January 16, 2006

Bringing light to dark hours ahead no easy task for tax hike pushers

Another Daily Herald writer hits one out of the ballpark. Great Job Chris Bailey. If you do not live in the Daily Herald readership area I strongly suggest you subscribe to the Daily Herald and have it mailed home. Their education pieces have been excellent.

This story appeared in the January 15th edition of the Daily Herald. Click on the post title to view the story at the Daily Herald website.

Bringing light to dark hours ahead no easy task for tax hike pushers
Chris Bailey
Posted Sunday, January 15, 2006

If the endless gray days haven’t already sent folks into a mid-winter funk, they should have no fear. Despair is just around the corner. The darkest hour for any taxpayer — referendum time — is upon us.

For the most part, the primary election on March 21 will be ignored by all but the most party-oriented or habitual voters, of which there are very few. The exceptions, of course, will be where voters are being asked to approve tax hike or bond sale requests for their school, fire, park or library districts.

That’s because most voters know they’re being asked to give more money to public servants who, by and large, already have it better than they do in terms of pay, pensions and health care benefits. And those who pay any attention to the numbers also recognize that such requests are coming from people proposing budgets and long-range plans that are not financially sustainable — unless taxpayers ante up again later.

If you think this is “all about the kids” or “all about public safety,” ask yourself who benefits from passage. And then ask who will be paying if the tax hike rejected.

The answer to the first question is “public servants.” The answer to the second is “students” or “consumers.” None of these proposed tax hikes will be accompanied by plans that freeze or control wages in any significant way or bring to an end the belief that the expense side of the ledger can grow forever without consequence. Few will be accompanied by serious attempts to control the growing health care or pension costs that are bankrupting governments everywhere. Some will actually ask to put more people on the government pension dole.

You will hear many heartfelt arguments about the need to remain “competitive” in the employment marketplace, but no one will be able to explain why community colleges require more and more students who come from those so-called competitive marketplaces to take remedial classes.

And then look at the consequences for non-approval of referendums. I am not among those who consider those explanations “threats,” but they do tell me who is serious and who isn’t. Athletics and extracurricular activities and gifted programs are drops in school budget buckets, for example. If they are at the top of the cut list, attempts to rein in spending aren’t serious, but simply dabbling in emotion.

Without wage controls, any serious attempt to restrain school expenditures must look seriously at the big, often bloated programs like special and bilingual education. Because of parental and political pressure, they are often far out of line with expenditures on other students and legal requirements.

Though Elgin School District U-46 is often maligned, it stands as proof that spending can be restrained. A few years ago it was buried in red ink — $60 million worth or so. It analyzed program costs and then acted decisively. It delayed opening four new schools and slashed hundreds of teachers, many of them in bilingual and special education programs, with little discernible negative impact. Without any referendums passing, it has halved its deficit, which now stands at less than $10 million, every year. Beyond that, its test scores are improving in most areas and it has involved its unions in attempts to scale back health-care expenditures. Though results in those areas are not yet worth wild celebration, there is no denying the numbers are moving in the right direction. Yes, the district has issued life-safety bonds that don’t require taxpayer approval but do affect tax bills. But at least that money goes toward the basics and the other gradual improvements show the expense side of the ledger can be restrained — with effort.

I’m guessing most upcoming referendums will fail for one of three reasons. Taxpayers will feel they can’t afford them. Taxpayers won’t trust those who’ve said one thing and done another. Or they will resent that increasing the revenue side of the ledger remains the first resort while little serious effort is expended to reduce the cost side. Anyone expecting the sun to be shining March 22 had better be prepared to address all three.

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