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Thursday, Aug. 12, 2004 10:45 am

Schools need courageous politics

art1289

Conventional wisdom in Illinois says that politicians who take politically difficult positions are doomed to defeat, but the late Paul Simon always challenged that. "It is not true," he boomed back to me not so long ago, after I had voiced the cynical view. He said if you're honest with voters and make a case for your position they will support you on your overall record, even while they may disagree on a particular issue. Simon supported abortion rights and gun control, opposed the death penalty and Chief Illiniwek, and remained one of the most popular politicians in Illinois.

But he did lose one election and that, unfortunately, has contributed to the myth that no politician can sponsor tax reform and survive. In February 1972 during the primary campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor, Simon said he would like to see more of the burden for school funding shifted from the property tax to the income tax. "Unfortunately I had no precise figures on how it would be carried out," Simon wrote in his autobiography. His opponent, the Chicago lawyer Dan Walker, pounced on the issue, trumpeting around the state that Simon was proposing to triple the state income tax. Walker's demagoguery and Simon's defeat set back education funding for decades.

Now a nonprofit research group is laying the groundwork for sweeping school tax reform, so that the next leader who takes on the issue won't be ill-prepared like Simon was. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, headquartered in Chicago, has spent the past four years fine-tuning a proposal for a property tax/income tax swap that would not only provide increased resources for education, but would grow every year as incomes grow. The proposal has now been introduced as House Bill 750, which will be the subject of a series of hearings statewide. The first is scheduled for Bloomington Aug. 16. For details go to ctbaonline.org.

The mammoth budget battle that took place this year despite a reasonably strong economy signals something terribly wrong with the Illinois tax system. "The entire discussion wasn't about how do we invest the best way for our schoolchildren," says Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. "It was about which essential programs can we cut?" He says even though the General Assembly eventually approved a modest $154 per pupil increase this year, when that's combined with past cuts and increased needs, Illinois is falling further behind in school funding. "We cannot grow our way out of this problem."

That's because of the "structural deficit" in the tax system. Illinois relies too much on local property taxes, which not only fall disproportionately on low- and moderate-income taxpayers, but don't grow enough to keep up with growing needs. The reform proposal would increase the state personal income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent on individuals and from 4.8 to 8 percent on corporations. The tax would generate $5 billion in new revenue while still leaving Illinois in the bottom third of states in overall taxes. Then the state would send each school district at least 20 percent of the money it currently receives from property taxes to be rebated to property owners on their tax bills. A system of income tax credits to low- and middle-income families would ensure that those who can afford higher taxes pay most of the bill.

Results would be dramatic. This would bring $15 million a year in new money to Springfield District 186, according to CTBA's researchers. "That would be wonderful," says Diane Rutledge, District 186 superintendent. "We are living from grant to grant. That's no way to do business for the long term." The Springfield district has been hit with $13 million in cuts over the last four years, while student achievement expectations have increased. Rutledge said increased funding could bring back social workers and student assistant programs, beef up school security, enhance professional development opportunities for teachers, and decrease class sizes.

Where can we find the political courage to get this done? So far Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been seen as a major stumbling block, but that could change. His cut-and-borrow patchwork will get harder to pull off every year, and even he may tire of continual cutting. The governor he is most often compared with is Dan Walker, one of the worst in recent memory. If Blagojevich were to embrace this proposal, and get it passed, he would be in a league with Richard Ogilvie, one of the best. Not only would this governor's place in history be assured, he would leave a legacy of enhanced opportunity for generations of schoolchildren in Illinois.

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