Next week, 79 of Minnesota’s 337 school districts will seek voters’ approval to help fund school services. In its October 22 “eUpdate,” the Taxpayers League attributes school levy referenda to “an unquenchable thirst for spending.” The true causes are unrelenting cuts in real per capita state funding to schools combined with anticipation of more aid cuts in light of the state’s $6.8 billion deficit.
When it comes to property tax increases, the Taxpayers League has no one but itself to blame. The “no new tax” policy that it has ferociously and successfully pursued has caused real per pupil state aid to schools to fall by 14 percent from FY 2003 to FY 2011. By and large, school property tax increases over the last eight years were not providing real per pupil budget increases, but were used to replace a portion of state aid cuts. Even after factoring in property tax increases, nearly three quarters of Minnesota school districts have less real per pupil revenue in FY 2011 than they did in FY 2003.
The Taxpayers League undermines its own case by linking to a Bloomberg Businessweek article loaded with examples of deep budget cuts that school districts have made in recent years. The article notes that “…most districts have depleted their reserves. Many had been cutting jobs and closing schools in recent years, and then lawmakers shifted $1.4 billion in education funding away from schools to fill a hole in the current budget.” (Actually, the full education shift is $1.8 billion, but only $1.4 billion must be repaid in FY 2012-13.) The article goes on to cite examples of steep budget cuts in specific school districts.
The Taxpayers League bemoans the fact that school spending is scheduled to comprise 40 percent of the state general fund in FY 2012-13. Unfortunately, the only reason school spending is that high in the first place is because of K-12 funding shifts made necessary because of a “no new tax” policy which compelled the state to balance its budget through accounting gimmicks like the education shift rather than through an honest increase in revenue.
The Taxpayers League “no new state tax” agenda will have the same result in the future as it has in the past: school budget cuts and higher property taxes as more state costs are shifted on to property taxpayers. Minnesota needs a balanced solution to its budget deficit that involves both spending reductions and an increase in progressive state taxes.