Get your calculators ready! And while you're at it put on your mathematically inclined thinking caps. You'll need both if you're to have even the slightest understanding of the issues facing members of the recently formed Octorara Tax Commission.
Meeting Monday for the first time as a requirement of the state legislature's latest approach to school funding reform, commissioners looked appropriately baffled as they sifted through spreadsheets and a variety of complex alternative proposals for reducing property taxes. They have until mid-December to come up with a recommendation as to whether the district would be best served by a shift (emphasis on the shift) in the manner in which Octorarians fund their schools.
Unfortunately, these civic-minded citizens have been cast adrift in a sea of relative unknowns. Nobody, for example, knows when the alleged revenue stream from the state's share of the gambling take will actually materialize. It is this portion of the hodge-podge tax reform measure, now known as Act 1, that it is hoped will provide the lion's share of tax relief -- sometime. In the meantime, tax commissions across the state will determine the wisdom of de-emphasizing the role of the property tax with a shift to either an increased earned income tax or institution of a personal income tax.
Their verdict on this implication-laden idea will go to the school board as a non-binding recommendation. In the event commissioners call for implementation of either of the two options now under consideration and board members subsequently agree, the whole package must go before the electorate in the spring primary election in 2007. Who knows what the nine-person commission will come up with, but it is safe to say it is likely taxpayers will be asked for their opinion. We should pay attention.
Informed decisions are, we are told in this age of democracy propagation, the bedrock of a democratic system. Yet, for the average property taxpayer the intricacies of school district budgets remain a mystery. All most folks know for a certainty is that their school taxes never go down, most think of them as always going up. Throw into the mix the idea of shifting the tax burden from one source to another. Then ask mystified taxpayers to decide on the efficacy of such a proposal and in all likelihood a negative response will win the day.
Mere mention of the idea of imposing a new tax, even one considered to more equitably to distribute the tax burden but not increase it, is like a red rag to a bull among many in our tax averse polity. Such a shift, if enacted, will certainly mean an increase in taxes for folks in the higher income brackets. Remember any switch has to be voter-approved. Guess who are the people most likely to vote in an off-year election primary? Precisely... those who will be hit hardest by the new levy.
Were we to live in a Utopia, populated by altruistic citizens as supportive of the fairest distribution of the tax burden as they are concerned with the impact on their own pocket books, such a shift in emphasis might have a prayer. But under one scenario presented to commissioners Monday any household living in a home in the mid-range of property values with an income over $55,000 would pay more in school taxes. Folks living on less would pay less in taxes. Given these circumstances 40 percent of the district's households would benefit. The remaining 60 percent would pick up the newly created tab. My fear is that these numbers alone render the commission's deliberations, to say nothing of its recommendations, dead before arrival.
Maybe not, we shall see as the process unfolds. While I suppose I must concede that legislators who cobbled this so-called reform together wanted to spark public involvement in school funding issues, they must also have been tempted by the ever-prevalent urge in their midst to pass the buck. By asking John Q. Public to do their job for them, lawmakers cleverly avert the suicidal mantle of having voted for a tax increase -- even if it really wasn't one.
Instead of wholesale reform, such as a shift to a sales-tax based system or a wholly income-based levy, our state lawmakers have created an incredibly complex tax structure built of pieces salvaged from 30 years of largely botched attempts to do essentially the same thing. Now the Octorara Tax Commission, among others across the state, will attempt to make sense and something worthwhile of what our elected representatives didn't have the political courage to do themselves.
Good luck to them. Taxpayers, stay tuned.