Editorials

Penny tax for Madison County school construction is still a hard sell

Granite City School Superintendent Jim Greenwald on the roof of Prather Elementary. The district previously supported a countywide penny sales tax to replace its aging roof and other maintenance needs in the school district.
Granite City School Superintendent Jim Greenwald on the roof of Prather Elementary. The district previously supported a countywide penny sales tax to replace its aging roof and other maintenance needs in the school district. snagy@bnd.com

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s because the third time is a charm if you want to add a 1 percent sales tax, right?

Madison County voters this spring may again be faced with whether they want to pay an extra $1 on a $100 purchase so schools have another revenue stream for construction and building maintenance. In 2011, 80 percent of voters said “no.” Earlier this year, voters said “no” by a tiny fraction of a percentage point.

It’s just another 1 percent, but add it to the highest rate in the county, 8.35 percent in Granite City, then you are talking about a nearly 10 percent sales tax bill that provides a little shock for consumers that they are likely to notice and react to the next time they decide where to shop. Collinsville would be nearly as bad with the city sales tax increasing to 9.1 percent were this to pass.

School boards representing at least half the students in the county must approve the measure before it goes on the ballot. Highland already voted in favor, and Granite City is likely in favor despite already being home to the county’s highest sales tax rate. Edwardsville, Triad and Alton also are expected to support the tax. Collinsville is likely to oppose it.

The challenge this time is the same as it was for St. Clair County in the spring and Madison County the previous two times. Schools need to show voters that this money will give them property tax relief, and not just be another new tax burden.

Even when St. Clair County schools did that, the measure still failed. A demonstrated and articulated need for specific construction projects is much more likely to convince voters to part with even more in taxes.

If your school were sinking into an old coal mine, then voters would be likely to dig deeper. If your growing district is holding class in a former broom closet, voters should respond.

But a blanket sales tax is a hard sell. It unevenly hits poorer taxpayers. It also becomes a forever tax, as opposed to construction bonds that eventually will be paid off or even higher property taxes that should come down as the community and its total value rise.

Illinois just revamped its school funding formula. There are new promises from Springfield that when they say they are sending $1, the schools will no longer have to settle for 90 cents.

Until Illinois is given a chance to keep its promise to its children, this seems a poor time to again ask taxpayers for more — even if it is only a penny.

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