Indiana voters trending against schools in tax votes

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Indiana taxpayers may not be in the mood to pay for bigger, better schools in tough economic times, but they're more willing to help school districts make ends meet in most cases.

That's what the results of a series of property-tax referendums on school issues held last week across the state seem to say, according to lawmakers and other experts.

"The message to the school corporations is you have to start living within your means just like every other Hoosier family has to," said state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel.

Voters last Tuesday voted down three proposed school building projects. The one to win approval — in southern Indiana's Southwest Dubois district — was for renovations, not new construction. Eight of nine school construction projects were rejected in previous referendums this year.

Districts that asked for permission to raise property taxes beyond a new state-mandated 1-percent cap next year to meet operating costs fared better, with two out of three winning approval Tuesday.

"I think the public looks at that a little differently than they do bricks and mortar," said Dennis Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials.

Faced with the prospect of more crowded classrooms or eliminating bus routes, voters generally sided with school officials.

"No one likes property taxes, but at the same time if you want services then you need to come out and support those services," said Paul Kaiser, superintendent the Beech Grove school district in Indianapolis, where the potential loss of school transportation was a hot issue.

But voters in Indianapolis' rapidly growing Franklin Township, where taxpayers are already paying for several building projects in recent years, turned down a request to raise money for the general fund.

That leaves school officials there facing the prospect of trimming some $9 million in teaching positions and transportation costs out of next year's budget.

"We're going to lose 30 percent of the revenue in transportation," district Superintendent Walter Bourke said. "We're looking to cut bus routes and cut service."

Retired Indiana University economist Morton Marcus, who has studied the state's tax system for decades, said the referendums showed that voters tend to be influenced by short-term consequences and generally are unwilling to pay for schools they regard as "fancy."

Delph and Costerison agreed that voters tend to look with disfavor on major new projects such as auditoriums, swimming pools and gymnasiums.

But Marcus said voters often don't seem to grasp that taxes are a bill for government services.

"If people don't want to pay taxes, what we'll ultimately find out that they just won't get services," Marcus said.

Voters in the Hamilton Southeastern district — one of the state's fastest growing — this Tuesday will consider a referendum allowing higher property taxes to cover operating costs.

Costerison saw the troubled economy as the driving force behind last week's votes.

"This is not an anti-public school issue to me; this is an economic issue," he said. If the economy were stronger, school ballot measures might be more likely to pass, he said.

State Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, agreed.

"It's going to be tough to pass these things right now while we're in a recession. People are hurting," he said.

Although legislation allowing public referendums on school construction only passed in 2007, taxpayers have been able to challenge building projects through petition remonstrances since 1995, Costerison said.

But the change in law seemed to bring a change in mood. Under the old law, about half of the proposed building projects passed, but of 20 school project referendums held in the past two years, only six have been approved, Costerison said.

The concept of referendums to support school general funds goes back to property tax reforms under Gov. Otis Bowen in the early 1970s, though it's been little used, he said. Under the current law, voters can approve property tax cap waivers for seven years at a time before school officials must go back to the polls for fresh approval.


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  1. Now if he'd just stay there...

  2. Daniel - what about the many US citizens who do NOT follow what the Bible teaches? The Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others who are all American citizens entitled to all rights as Americans?? This issue has NOTHING to do with "What the Bible says..." Keep all Churches separate from State! Pence's ongoing idiocy continues to make Indiana look like a backwards, homophobic state in the eyes of our nation. Can't we move on to bigger issues - like educating our kids?

  3. 1. IBJ should link to the referenced report. We are in the age of electronic media...not sharing information is lazy. Here is a link http://www.in.gov/gov/files/Blue_Ribbon_Panel_Report_July_9_2014.pdf 2. The article should provide more clarity about the make-up of this panel. The commenters are making this item out to be partisan, it does not appear the panel is partisan. Here is a list of the panel which appears to be balanced with different SME to add different perspectives http://www.in.gov/activecalendar/EventList.aspx?view=EventDetails&eventidn=138116?formation_id=189603 3. It suggests a by-pass, I do not see where this report suggests another "loop". 4. Henry, based on your kneejerk reaction, we would be better off if you moved to another state unless your post was meant as sarcasm in which case I say Well Done. 5. The article and report actually indicates need to improve rail and port infrastructure in direct contradiction to Shayla commentary. Specifically, recommendation is to consider passenger rail projects... 6. People have a voice with their elected officials. These are suggestions and do not represent "crony capitalism", etc. The report needs to be analyzed and the legislature can decide on priorities and spending. Don't like it, then vote in a new legislature but quit artificially creating issues where there are none! People need to sift through the politics and provide constructive criticism to the process rather than making uninformed comments in a public forum based on misinformation. IBJ should work harder to correct the record in these forums when blatant errors or misrepresentations are made.

  4. Joe ... Marriage is defined in the Bible ... it is mentioned in the Bible often. Marriage is not mentioned once in the US or Indiana Constitution ...

  5. Daniel - Educate me please: what does the Bible have to do with laws? If the government wasn't in the business of marriage to begin with, then it wouldn't have to "define" marriage at all. Marriage could be left as a personal, religious, or otherwise unregulated action, with no ties to taxes, legal status, etc. Then people could marry whomever they want, and all this silliness would go away. Remember to vote Libertarian in November.