American culture has produced a few pithy, half-humorous truisms. Two come to mind: The check is in the mail, and I'm from the government and I'm here to help you.
You may now add a new one, courtesy of the Utah Legislature: Go ahead and vote; we'll fix this school-district-split problem later.
Well, the fix is in.
Last fall, people on the east side of the Jordan School District voted to split and form their own, well-heeled district. That left the rapidly growing remnants on the west side with a huge money problem an estimated $800 million in new building needs over time.
The best solution would have been to establish a statewide plan to equalize all costs of construction. After all, it isn't right that some districts, by virtue of their nice homes and tax-rich businesses, have an easier time raising money than others, particularly in rural areas. Public education is supposed to give all students an equal education, but kids in rich and poor districts are hardly equal in the facilities their schools can afford.
But the best lawmakers could do was give a one-time pittance to most districts statewide, then force all school districts within Salt Lake County to raise property taxes to help the west-side Jordan District, and allow them to do this in secret.
Yes, I said in secret.
Last week I wrote about how Utah's Truth-in-Taxation Law, passed more than 20 years ago, has succeeded in keeping property taxes reasonably low statewide. I cited statistics published by the Utah Foundation, showing how Utahns pay less for property taxes today in proportion to their income than they did in 1965. Truth-in-Taxation requires local governments, including school boards, to declare a tax increase any time they plan to collect more revenue than the year before. This keeps them from reaping a windfall from a booming real estate market.
Once they declare a tax increase, the governments have to advertise it in local newspapers and hold public hearings, which tend to be ugly affairs.
But when lawmakers last week passed SB48, they included a provision that gives Salt Lake County school districts a pass on Truth-in-Taxation to make up for the money lawmakers are forcing them all to give to the new Jordan-west district.
Maybe they were worried that county residents would grab their pitchforks and head to public hearings demanding to know why their taxes were rising, and that the districts would be forced to tell them the truth that this really is a tax increase mandated from the state Capitol.
Now, however, county taxpayers aren't going to get angry until they receive their tax notices in the fall. They likely will waste a lot of time venting at the county assessor and, perhaps, their local school boards. With any luck, they won't figure out the truth until after state lawmakers are re-elected in November.
Small school districts may indeed be best for educating children, but politicians gave flight to this idea. Now they need to take the blame for turning it into the Hindenburg.
Before, only the folks on the west side of the Jordan District could complain about being denied a chance to vote on the district split, even though it affected them directly. Now everyone else in the county has the same valid complaint. Because all taxes come from the same person you cities are wondering how they can now raise money for their own legitimate needs.
One interesting side note: Salt Lake County is emerging as the voice of reason here, as it did when it stood firm against public funding for a soccer stadium last year. Lawmakers overrode them on that one, and on this one, too.
The County Council had voted against allowing a vote to split the Jordan District because some unincorporated residents would be affected. In a special session last August, the Legislature stripped the county of its power to stop the vote.You may not believe the traditional truisms. Just make sure you don't buy one about how lawmakers haven't raised your taxes.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]