IOM editorial: Rigging democracy with tax referenda

Earlier this week, facing questions about thousands of teacher layoffs being made by school districts in the wake of a billion dollars in state spending cuts- including $300 million in cuts to pre-K-12 education - Gov. Corbett argued he's not responsible for teachers now out of a job.

"We will not be laying off the school districts' teachers," Corbett said. The districts "have their own financial decisions they have to make."

It's a bit disingenuous of Corbett to encourage school districts to make "their own financial decisions," since he insisted the budget deal include a deceptive law that makes it much harder for districts to decide to raise taxes.

Unlike the Philadelphia School District, most districts around the state are "taxing authorities," which means they set the rate of the property taxes that fund public schools. A 2006 law called Act 1 requires that property-tax hikes above the inflation rate be put to a voter referendum, though there were a lot of exceptions to the requirement. The law Corbett supported in this year's budget deal reduces those exceptions, meaning many more tax hikes will now have to go before voters.

Supporters of this change say voters should have the right to approve tax hikes. This sounds great at first, but creates a sneaky double standard: If voters need to approve tax hikes, why not also school cuts?

We'll tell you why not: Because both tax hikes and school cuts are undesirable. Voters would be stuck with the same hard decisions elected officials are trying to duck. Republicans looking for lower taxes don't want voters to make choices - like funding education - that might not serve their own agenda.

Act 1 doesn't make Pennsylvania more democratic - it just rigs the game by applying one form of democracy (direct democracy) to taxes and another (representative democracy) to spending.

The teacher layoffs happening now aren't because of the Act 1 changes. Indeed, many school boards have raised taxes this year. But Corbett and state Republicans are hoping that if they force more teacher layoffs in the future, they'll be able to hide behind "the will of the people." That's clever, but it's not true. If asked, the people might support the idea of giving more money to education. They might remember the costing-out study commissioned by the Legislature in 2008 that found the state's public-education system was underfunded by about $4.38 billion. And they might decide education is worth paying for - even if it means a little more in taxes.

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