Possible property tax cut, income tax up

By Gus Bode

Education Funding Advisory Board offers recommendations to ease education funding

Illinois property owners may be doling out less money in property taxes if recommendations made by the Education Funding Advisory Board are approved by the General Assembly and the governor in January 2003.

But Illinois taxpayers may end up shelling out a little more in state income tax.

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EFAB released its preliminary report, detailing a decrease in property taxes, reorganization of Illinois school districts, an increase in individual income tax and an increase in general state aid. The recommendations will be presented in public hearings starting Thursday.

The effort to revamp the Illinois school funding formula, however, is not gaining the support of gubernatorial hopefuls.

Both candidates for governor, Attorney General Jim Ryan and U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, D-Chicago, have publicly voiced that they would not support any plan that called for an overall tax increase.

Resentment to such proposals is nothing new. Similar plans have failed to gain political momentum in the past, largely because legislators fear the repercussions of voting for a tax increase.

The fact that this plan may end up collecting dust on the shelf with the others is exactly what frustrates Bob Leiniger, chairman of EFAB.

“There’s a lot of positive feedback and a lot of criticism,” Leininger said. “People are always saying, ‘this isn’t the time for a tax increase.’ Well, when the hell is the time for a tax increase in Illinois?”

As it stands now, Illinois property owners pay about $9 billion in property taxes for education. Property taxes could be relieved by 25 percent to 50 percent, which would result in reductions between $2.3 billion and $4.6 billion in state education funding. The lost funds would then be replaced dollar-for-dollar by the state so no district would lose any money, Leininger said.

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The real difference in per-pupil spending is between the suburbs of Chicago and downstate.

“That’s where they’re spending upwards of $10,000 a student because property taxes are higher,” Leininger said. “We need to even out the playing field.”

The income rate could see a possible 3 to 4 percent increase, as well as a corresponding increase in corporate income tax. This increase, according to the report, would generate approximately $2.8 billion in additional education revenue.

The income tax increase could be smaller, according to Leininger, because it depends on how much property tax relief is approved.

“This would bring long-term stability to schools to provide equitability,” said Lee Milner, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education. “We need to get away from depending on property tax for education funding.”

The proposed increase in General State Aid would fall into a range from $5,665 to $6,680 per student, up from its present level of $4,560. This increase, as well as other state adjustments, would make up for the decrease in individual property tax, said Milner.

“We want to bring the bottom up,” Leininger said. “In that $5,600 range is what every child should get.”

The report also calls for serious district reorganization. According to the report, Illinois has nearly 900 school districts. Five percent of high schools outside of Chicago have fewer than 100 students, and 33 percent have fewer than 250 students.

The recommendations are that no high schools have fewer than 250 students and that all districts become kindergarten through grade 12, said Milner.

“This makes it more efficient to fund them and the transition for students more smooth,” Milner said.

Both gubernatorial candidates agreed that it was impractical to merge smaller schools, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The recommendations will be presented in public hearings on Thursday in Chicago, Friday in Springfield and Sept. 17 in Belleville. The governor and General Assembly will then hear the approved recommendations in late December or early January.

“We want to create a benchmark for high schools,” Milner said. “We want to ensure the opportunity for an adequate education in Illinois.”

“If we have the support of tax payers and the legislation, this will work,” Leininger said. “And it will be a whole lot more fair than it is now.”

Reporter Arin Thompson can be reached at [email protected]

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