Record school funding? Local taxpayers bear load

This editorial published in the Orlando Sentinel on Oct. 17, 2015

 

Tallahassee wants to provide “historic” school spending by continuing to play Tallahassee’s trick on taxpayers.

You might think that Florida’s system of financing education is simple: Your property taxes pay for the schools in your county. It’s not that simple.

Local taxes pay some of the cost. The state pays the rest, mostly through sales-tax revenue and federal grants. But it’s still not that simple.

On the public-school portion of your property-tax bill are two lines: One says “state,” the other “local.” The state tax rate, called the Required Local Effort, is much higher. The Legislature sets it. The local school board sets only the smaller one.

If the Legislature needs more money for schools, it could take more from the state treasury. Instead, to provide a “historic” education budget next year, Tallahassee plans to take more from local property owners, hoping they don’t get wise.

During the recession, the Legislature raised the state property-tax rate for schools because as housing values sank, so did revenue. As property values began to rise, the Legislature lowered the rate — as happened this year — but still kept it high enough to bring in more money. So while property owners will pay more school taxes than last year, Tallahassee doesn’t call it a tax increase.

That’s the trick.

To reach what Gov. Rick Scott calls a “historic” level next year will require an additional $476 million. But instead of spending sales-tax dollars, his Board of Education wants local property owners to pay 89 percent of it.

Tallahassee plays lots of money tricks — such as dumping state costs onto local governments — but this is one of the sneakiest. And Tallahassee has been playing it more often.

When Jeb Bush became governor in 1999, the state share of school spending was 62 percent. Next year, the state would chip in just 49 percent.

Plus, the state redistributes some taxes collected from property-rich counties to increase funding in property-poor counties. Since 2007, Florida TaxWatch has recommended that the Legislature eliminate the need for rich counties to subsidize poor counties by ending some sales-tax exemptions. Instead, Tallahassee keeps cutting taxes, which reduces the state money for schools and increases the need for local property owners to pay more.

If the governor and Legislature would agree to roll back the Required Local Effort, the savings would be statewide. But that would require making up the difference from the state budget.

Sen. Don Gaetz,  R-Niceville, chairs the subcommittee that will write the education budget. He told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, “I don’t think it’s right or fair for Tallahassee politicians to reach around and pat each other on the back about record per-pupil funding and then make local school boards do the heavy lifting.”

We agree. Give the schools more money, but do it honestly. That would truly be “historic.”

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