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OP-ED | A Statewide Property Tax For Connecticut Schools? Think Again

by Terry D. Cowgill | Jun 21, 2013 4:30am
(10) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion


Since the national economy took a turn for the worse five years ago, those who believe Connecticut has a revenue problem rather than a spending problem have searched high and low for a solution.

During the recession of the early 1990s, the last time the state faced a fiscal crisis of comparable magnitude, there was a vast potential source of untapped revenue. Surprisingly, at that time Connecticut had no personal income tax. So at the urging of born-again income-tax advocate Gov. Lowell Weicker, the General Assembly narrowly passed it, prompting 40,000 taxpayers to march on the Capitol. The demonstrators cursed at Weicker and tried to spit on him. They threatened to unseat lawmakers who voted for what, at the time, was the largest tax increase in state history.

As liberals had predicted, the tax base stabilized and lots of revenue was created to pay the wages and benefits of public employees and the political class. But as conservatives also prophesied, the massive tax hike did little or nothing for the economy. Since the tax on personal income was rammed through the legislature and signed by Weicker, Connecticut has essentially become a zero-growth state. The number of jobs in Connecticut is basically the same as it was in 1990, but annual state spending has increased from $7 billion to about $20 billion today — way beyond the rate of inflation and astronomically higher than our rate of growth.

So, if we want to continue to expand the government, what do we do in the absence of economic growth? Well, if a pair of UConn economists have their way, we’ll consider a statewide property tax. Given our experience of the last 23 years, it is more than remarkable that, in releasing the report last week, UConn contributing economist Stan McMillen called the concept of a statewide property tax an example of thinking “outside the box.”

McMillen and another UConn economist, Steven P. Lanza, say we should look into the broad-based property tax as a way of increasing the state’s educational cost sharing (ECS) grants to municipalities. The economic duo say that, despite state mandates requiring adequate funding, the ECS program has been underfunded to the tune of $1.05 billion over the last five years.

If indeed the state is failing to meet its statutory obligation to fund school districts — something on which officials do not seem to agree — then something needs to be done. But do we really want to provide the General Assembly with yet another means of reaching into our wallets? Once enacted, taxes rarely disappear. Republican gubernatorial candidate John Rowland campaigned in 1994, in part, on the repeal of Weicker’s income tax. But once elected, he abandoned the idea when faced with the reality that almost no one in Hartford wanted to give up the treasure trove of new revenue.

Rather than increasing the sales or income taxes, Lanza said a property tax would be a more predictable source of revenue. “Property can’t get up and move so easily. So you know the tax base is going to stay there and you can be pretty certain about the revenue that you’re going to raise,” Lanza surmised. In other words, lawmakers have a captive audience.

But that’s precisely what income tax advocates were saying 23 years ago and yet, what did it get us? Another epic tax increase in 2011, nagging deficits, perpetual budget gimmicks and underfunded pensions as far as the eye can see. If we take on any more “stability,” it will kill us.

Implicit in the comments of Lanza and McMillen is that inadequate ECS funding is at the root of Connecticut’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap between wealthy and poor school districts. But a review of fiscal 2014 ECS estimates reveals that poorer districts receive far more in per-capita aid than wealthy ones. Low-performing Hartford, for example, receives by far the highest amount — almost $200 million in ECS grants — and, according to the Yankee Institute, has spent the most per-capita in the state over the last 13 years.

And it’s not just poor cities receiving more than well-to-do suburbs. In the rural Northwest Corner, for example, toney Salisbury will receive only $187,266 in ECS grants while, with a population 20 percent lower than Salisbury’s, working-class North Canaan will collect more than $2 million.

So, is miserly school spending really the culprit in low student achievement? Looking at the evidence, you’d have to say no. More likely, it’s a combination of factors over which schools have little control. Poverty, children whose fathers have abandoned them, mothers who are overwhelmed or doomed to a life of dependency, and kids who spend all their spare time doing drugs or staring at screens.

In other words, social pathologies that no ECS grant of any amount will cure.

Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.


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(10) Comments

posted by: Noteworthy | June 21, 2013  7:59am

Bravo. Outstanding. People like the UCONN philosophers and those in the legislature and Malloy, who find warm comfort in their reliable refrain of “we just need more money” mantra simply ignore reality and history. Hopefully, this will put a knife in the heart of this predictable thinking. And as you read about Malloy’s office reporting out a “surplus” know that’s not real. There are enough gimmicks and rosy projections to swamp the ship of state because the appetite for spending was, is and forever will not be satiated.

posted by: lkulmann | June 21, 2013  8:21am

The social issues are curable. If the money actually reached the schools and the community there are community programs and school interventions that can implemented and we want to implement. The problem is always ‘there is no money in the budget’ If you can prove to me in black and white (and green) that these school monies actually get into the classrooms, I’ll step aside and stand corrected.

posted by: Just another CT resident | June 21, 2013  9:35am

This proposal is far from “outside the box” thinking. One doesn’t need to travel too far to see the fruits of this approach to funding public education. Travel up I-91 about 75 miles to Vermont and you will find a state that has instituted a state wide property tax to fund public schools for several years. The Vermont cognoscenti instituted the state wide property tax in part as they believed it was terribly unfair that some school districts could spend more money per student than other districts. So now all school districts spend the same amount of money per student. While this approach may have alleviated small towns from their financial struggles to fund the local school, one of the effects has been to reduce the amount of per capita spending in other school districts and diminish the quality of the education in those districts. Imagine impacts on public education if our state did the same!
This proposal is just another vehicle to get the State more money to spend and if history is any indication, it will do little if anything to reduce the education gap. All it will do is to give our friends in Hartford more money to spend.
PS - This proposal doesn’t say much of the economists from UCONN who believe this is “outside the box thinking.”

posted by: JAM | June 21, 2013  10:59am

And how do you equalize assessed values over 169 jurisdictions? It won’t take local assessors long to figure out how to lowball assessments.
Same issue as with the “unfairness” of the car tax. The state will set up yet another agency @ additional expense to check on every assessor.

posted by: artythesmarty | June 21, 2013  11:29am

this is an excellent analysis.  I was there and it was said by Sullivan(still there) et al that the INCOME tax was predictable. Many lawmakers said the “conveyance” tax would pay everything and many were in bed with the corrupt Colonial Realty which actually caused many to go bankrupt(local connected types used to brag about being invited to be in on a Col REalty certificate. The big change then was the Ed Enhancement act(teacher salary increase) that said “we arent attracting the right people into public ed so lets pay these same people MORE and hopefully the new ones replacing the admittedly not right people will fix it”.  Essentially it paid elementary and phys ed teachers at the same level of degreed UTC engineers(90k) PLUS pension PLUS security.  The diff between a UCONN engineering degree and a SCSU teaching degree is about the same as the US OPen Champ and the local public course champ. NOw teachers are golden, and engineers, pharma, IT are sucking wind. The income tax basically transferred money from productive area to the GEno loving Hartford govt types.. Sick

posted by: JAM | June 21, 2013  1:07pm

@JACR:
The Vermont tax was put in by Howard Dean to get the flatlanders with vacation homes in the resort towns to pay the freight for state education.
The locals get a credit on their state income tax for the statewide PT which pretty much washes out the PT. Obviously, the flatlanders don’t, and, except as a deduction on their Federal returns, they pay the full amount.
Your correct about the impact. In fact local communities which want to spend more than the prescribed amount are required to raise an equal additional amount and fork it over to the state. This greatly increases the local PT and most don’t do it.
The principal motivation, however, was to spread the wealth from the flatlanders.

posted by: Greg | June 21, 2013  2:29pm

Terry- Please run for statewide office, preferably Governor. Thank you.

posted by: GuilfordResident | June 21, 2013  5:21pm

Terry run for governor? Another gun-abolitionist/populace-controllist? No Thank You. I’ll gladly right my Hartofrd sen and rep in support of this ridiculous tax just to spite people who supported SB 1160.

posted by: art vandelay | June 22, 2013  1:46pm

art vandelay

And what’s to prevent this fund from being raided and transferred into the general.  The lottery was suppose to fund public education and look what happened.  The gas tax was suppose to fix our roads and bridges.  This fund was raided too and now we have the worst roads in the country. I’m sure if this becomes a reality, Connecticut will have the worst schools in the country.

posted by: ocoandasoc | June 23, 2013  1:36pm

Someone will have to explain to me how a State-wide property tax would improve education in CT.
Here’s a simple fact you can research if you choose. If you took ALL the property taxes in Connecticut that currently fund education and divided them equally on a per capita basis to every school system in the State, the most under-achieving schools (Hartford, New Haven, etc.) would wind up with LESS to spend. Sooooooo…. That means the State Legislature would have to come up with a system that 1) raises property taxes across the board and/or 2) rewards the worst-performing school systems with even more funding at the expense of school systems who are doing better. (Yes, I understand that we are, in essence, already practicing the latter policy, but this would institutionalize it and would put poor-performing school systems in a Catch 22 position: if they lower their achievement gap they will have their funding cut!) Does anyone trust the current CT Legislature to distribute this revenue cost-effectively?
I am in favor of more funding for education. But only after someone can convince me that the added dollars can and will actually bring better results.