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View from around the state: No state revenue-sharing on local referendums

In 2011, the Republican-majority state Legislature passed bills, which Gov. Scott Walker then signed into law, that made cuts to revenue caps for school districts, greatly reduced state aid to those districts and mandated that any expenditure over the revenue cap must be approved by a referendum.

While this legislation has hindered some districts’ ability to deal with budget shortfalls, we’ve come to recognize it as a prime example of democracy in action: If you want to raise the people’s taxes, you have to obtain permission from the people directly, at the ballot box.

Some Republican legislators have proposed taking this form of local control away, in the form of powerful disincentives to putting school referendum questions on the ballot.

School districts would no longer be able to ask voters to raise their taxes permanently and districts would lose some state funding if they exceed their state-imposed limits on raising property taxes through referendums under a package of bills Republican lawmakers released last week, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“I believe there is more harm being done to our tax climate via school referendum than anyone realizes,” said Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville. “If everything passed, next year property taxes in Wisconsin would be $63 million higher just from operating (referendums) this election and voters would have approved a total of over $2 billion in school debt in the past 13 months.”

Sen. Stroebel is offering proof of the line that if you torture numbers, they’ll tell you anything. He’s taking the combined total of the various Wisconsin school referendums and presenting them as if you are on the hook for all of that $2 billion.

You’re not. If you live in the Racine Unified School District, your property-tax bill reflects only Racine Unified spending, not the spending in any other school district. Voters in the Yorkville and Burlington Area school districts went to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to fund improvements solely on their district’s facilities. What’s being done for schools in Verona or Tomah or Merrill has no bearing on your taxes.

But another bill, from Stroebel and Rep. Tom Weatherston, R-Caledonia, would reduce state aid for districts that exceed their revenue limits through a referendum. The reduction in aid would be equal to 20 percent of the amount the district raises property taxes above their revenue limits. That state aid would then be redistributed to the rest of the state’s school districts through the state funding formula.

Seriously?

If Racine Unified voters approve a referendum, why should one penny of that money go to funding school projects in Green Bay, or vice versa? We believe that even opponents of a particular referendum would agree that, should a hypothetical referendum be approved, all money collected from Racine Unified taxpayers should pay only for Racine Unified schools. There should be no state revenue-sharing on any district’s referendum.

A school referendum asks residents of that district about the future of its schools. We don’t think Hartland Arrowhead High School in Waukesha County needs palatial, NBA-style locker rooms for its boys and girls basketball teams — the school spent $280,726 to complement a $361,224 donation for the deluxe renovations, LakeCountryNow.com reported in 2015 — but then again, as we are not taxpayers in that district, it’s none of our business. Voters in Arrowhead’s district could register their approval or disapproval on the next election day. School referendums operate on the same principle: Local control. As in, the locals decide.

We think there’s some room for reform with regard to referendums. The frequency with which school boards go back to the well after “no” votes could stand to have limits imposed. We also wouldn’t object to a mandate of calendar consistency: Legislation that referendums may only be held in conjunction with school board elections, or on the same day as general elections, for example.

But as for the money questions? Right here in Racine County, Tuesday’s night referendum results in the Yorkville and Burlington Area districts, and the February results in the Waterford Union district, are all the proof necessary for the argument that the residents of a district are the best judges of what is right for their district. Not members of the central government sitting in Madison.

— From the The Journal Times of Racine

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