Gov. Pawlenty doesn’t pay his bills. School district levies will be decided on Tuesday, but a victory at the polls doesn’t mean the problem is solved. Schools will still be underfunded because Pawlenty and his ilk won’t find the money to fund them.
Schools aren’t alone. Counties and cities face similar funding problems. Faced with growing mandates from the state, they either raise taxes or cut services to pay for state funding inadequacies.
Opinion: Property Taxes: We’re all in the same boat
Joe Mathews, a policy analyst with the Association of Minnesota Counties, said 75 percent of county budgets go toward mandated items such as jails and law enforcement. As mandates increase, the dollars available for services such as public health and transportation become negotiable. “We end up having to choose public safety over growing expenses,” he said.
School districts and municipalities plan their budgets in similar ways. They look at all incoming revenue, then look at all outgoing costs, and see how they can make up the difference.
But while cities and counties can simply raise property taxes, schools have to ask property taxpayers to raise their taxes when the state comes up short in funding. This has not proven to be a successful strategy: In 2006, more than 60 percent of levy requests were denied, leaving those school districts to cut basic services.
Cities and counties get less money from the state and are required to provide more services. Roughly 30 percent of county budgets come from the state, 40 percent from property taxes and the rest from federal funds, fees, permits and fines. Meanwhile, schools get about 80 percent of their money from the state and 12 percent to 15 percent from levies with the remainder from local, federal and other sources. That means any state budget cuts decimates schools while cities and counties are more insulated.
“We’ve studied the schools, and we don’t want to find ourselves in that position,” Mathews said. “Lots of counties are spending down reserves to smooth the transition from state funds to property taxes. Were not at a crisis level yet, but we’re getting there.”
It wasn’t meant to be this way. The state took on responsibility to pay for education, but didn’t create a way to pay for it. When tough times hit, Gov. Pawlenty slashed school funds, leaving districts with one option: take the levy that was meant to pay for extra programs and use it to pay for the basic necessities the state would no longer finance.
Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, doesn’t foresee a change in school levying authority. “Increasing the funding amount per student is more likely than giving schools a discretionary levy,” she said. “Nobody wants to see a property tax increase.”
She calls for responsible funding from the state. So does Mathews. “If the state doesn’t have the money to let us do what it tells us to do, then they shift the tax burden to us. It’s a struggle.”