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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 02:39 pm

Why Macon County’s school tax passed

Neighboring county had more money and better organization

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Left: Greg Blankenship, with Americans for Prosperity, was a vocal opponent of the failed sales tax referendum. Right: Chuck Pell worked with Citizens for Sangamon County Schools in its failed efforts to approve a school facilities sales tax.

Money and organization were the biggest differences between winners and losers in two neighboring counties’ school sales tax referendums, say those on both sides of the debates in Macon and Sangamon counties.

Sangamon County voters in November soundly defeated, with 55.6 percent of the vote, a 1 percent sales tax increase that by law could only pay for school construction projects. Their neighbors directly to the east in Macon County approved such a referendum with 51.6 percent of the vote. In both counties, a one percent increase would bring the overall sales tax rate to 9 percent.

According to the Illinois State Board of Elections website, the group campaigning for Macon County’s increase, Citizens for Macon County Schools, brought in nearly $75,800 in cash to use toward its campaign. It also received an in-kind contribution for marketing and public relations services valued at more than $35,500. One of the group’s chairmen, Kevin Breheny, says advice from a similar group in Champaign County, where voters approved a sales tax increase on its second try in April of 2009, also benefited the Macon County group’s efforts.

Citizens for Sangamon County Schools, which supported the sales tax increase here, only raised about $30,700 in cash, with an additional $9,300 in in-kind contributions, mostly for office support. One of the group’s organizers, Chuck Pell, says that the group didn’t make any major efforts to recruit donors, something he expects to change if Sangamon County schools decide to try again.

“We were sort of this true grassroots coalition of citizens who have tangential knowledge of how to run campaigns, but we’re not experts,” says Pell. “I think we did pretty good without the other kind of expertise that clearly this is going to need going forward.”

Losing the battle in Macon County, GOP Chairman Jerry Stocks says the local Republican Party probably spent less than $6,000 for one direct mail piece to fight against the increase. He adds that his campaign against the tax was hurt by numerous editorials in the local paper, the Herald & Review, which supported the increase.

Greg Blankenship, with Americans for Prosperity, opposed Sangamon County’s proposed sales tax increase. He says local proponents lacked the organization that helped push through Macon County’s referendum. AFP paid for robo-calls to area residents and Blankenship wrote letters to local media and posted messages on Facebook expressing his concerns. “We were able to get the message to voters a little more effectively,” Blankenship says. “The other side didn’t do a lot of the ground game.”

The ballot question proposed by Sangamon County schools was also coupled with a question from the Sangamon County Board, which is dominated by Republicans. The board asked voters whether it should consider other needs when deciding whether to implement a lower sales tax increase.

Stocks says that if Macon County voters had faced both questions, its referendum would have failed. “It would give them [voters] an immediate cause to reflect on what this means,” he says.

Though Macon County voters were never asked to what degree the sales tax should be raised, the Macon County Board on Monday planned to assess its options going forward, according to a Dec. 10 article in the Herald & Review. Stocks says he's not particularly optimistic that the Macon County Board won't implement a full 1 percent sales tax, and the board's chairman, Jay Dunn, says he thinks he has enough votes to approve the full 1 percent sales tax at its Jan. 13 meeting. Dunn, a Democrat, says the board is also reviewing the possibility of placing a cap on the number of years for which the sales tax is effective.

Springfield School District 186, which represents 49 percent of county students, decided last week not to place another referendum on the ballot in April, citing lack of time and a need to rethink sales tax education efforts.

Pell says he’s disappointed that the county schools won’t be pushing for an increase right away, but adds that he understands the school board’s desire to find out just why the public couldn’t support the measure.

Pell wonders, though, if the Illinois General Assembly will change the rules of the game before Sangamon County schools make their next attempt. “While it seems like a long way off, a lot can happen between a legislative session now and then [when county schools might push a sales tax increase again] to change the dynamic of what’s happening,” Pell says. Lawmakers during veto session proposed a measure, House Bill 2376, that would limit a county board’s involvement in determining a school sales tax increase.

For now, at least one Sangamon County school did get its wish, but only because about two-thirds of its students reside in Macon County. Sangamon Valley School District 9, in the Illiopolis area, will receive about $500,000 in the first year, assuming the tax is implemented at a full 1 percent rate.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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