I have become increasingly perplexed with State Representative Ed Clere’s usage of the free weekly campaign ad space afforded him by the Tribune.
In his latest column, Clere defends his support of property tax caps in relation to proposed school closings by claiming that “property tax caps have almost nothing to do with it.”
What he fails to mention, however, is the school funding scheme changes that were necessary to facilitate the property tax caps. Realizing that schools would suffer from the caps, the governor and some state legislators changed the funding stream that supports school systems’ general funds. Instead of being supported partially by local property taxes and partially by state revenue as they had been in the past, a decision was made to make state revenue the only source of school general funds so that local property taxes, which would be lessened by the caps, could be removed from that particular equation.
In order to gain support for the caps, citizens were promised by cap advocates that a 1% sales tax increase would help cover school funding deficits created by the loss of property tax revenue. Opponents of the change warned that sales and income taxes, the major components of state revenue, were too unstable a source to make school funding dependent on them, particularly during difficult economic times. Those warnings were ignored and between 2008 and 2009, the NA-FC School Corporation’s local property tax levy was reduced by 47.9% as Indianapolis took control of school general funds statewide.
Unfortunately, during that same period of 2008 to 2009, state revenues declined despite the sales tax increase. Projections at the time predicted that revenue would continue to decrease through 2011 and still do, with an additional $1.85 billion drop recently predicted for 2010 and 2011. In other words, concerns about the instability of those funding sources were proven valid. Armed with that knowledge, however, property tax cap supporters, including Clere, continued to advocate that the caps be made permanent. Since nearly half the property tax allotment had already been removed from the school corporation’s budget and intended replacement revenues were plainly not materializing, it’s difficult to believe that local cap advocates did not envision substantial school cuts and/or potential closings resulting from their favored policy.
So while Clere notes that property tax caps have little to do with impending school closings, that’s largely because the forced cuts are being made to the NA-FC general fund which, in accordance with policy he supports, is no longer directly connected to property tax revenue in the first place. It makes for nice rhetoric, but confuses rather than clarifies the issue as the caps changed the entire way funding occurs.
Ironically, Clere also says that “legislation I supported last week would allow the schools to replace up to 100 percent of the amount the governor cut. The replacement cash would come from funds that normally are restricted.” Though again unmentioned, all but one of those other restricted school funds are still supported by local property tax dollars. In combination, his recent statements suggest that when the sales tax revenue stream doesn’t work as tax cap advocates said it would, we should use property taxes again as a solution while simultaneously claiming that property taxes have little to do with the situation. Notable, too, is that the cash in question will not “replace” the money being cut. If I lose a $10 bill, moving another, completely different $10 bill from one pocket to the other obviously does not get me the $10 I lost back, regardless of how well I describe the pocket swap.
Perhaps even more generally confounding is that while Clere and other state level cap advocates suggest that putting more money in the classroom is their ultimate goal, they’ve chosen to marry teacher salaries, paid out of the general fund, to the verifiably unstable sales tax revenue stream while leaving capital, debt service, and other funding tied to the more stable property tax source. Governor Daniels, too, has made much of exorbitant new school construction as a waste of resources. If that’s the problem, why not just purposely cut capital and/or construction funding instead of threatening teacher and aid positions? Exurban demographics and party allegiance provide clues to a possible answer, but I’m not sure that alone is enough to explain such a convoluted approach to stated goals.
It’s clear that Clere’s a talented writer. What’s less clear as a result of that writing is what his intentions regarding our local schools actually are. I think we deserve a much better explanation than what we’ve gotten so far.