State courts shouldn't set tax policy

Sunday, August 10, 2003

When Missouri legislators convene next January for the 2004 session, they are likely to be under a cloud of a lawsuit filed by more than 100 of the state's 500-plus school districts seeking more state revenue.

Organizers of the lawsuit say they will make a strong case that the current school-funding formula needs to be replaced with a mechanism that is more equitable and more adequate.

What this means, simply, is that schools want more state money. Where that money will come from is the big unknown. Legislators already know that there will be a gap between spending needs and revenue approaching $1 billion for the next fiscal year. Pouring more dollars into schools would mean eliminating other programs, a process that was painful this year and is likely to be brutally agonizing next year.

The worst-case scenario is that legislators, unlike their counterparts who produced the Outstanding Schools Act of 1993 and its accompanying tax increase, are unlikely to bend to judicial pressure, resulting in a court-ordered school-funding plan.

The notion of having tax policy set by judges is a bad one. It was bad when a federal judge ordered a tax increase in the Kansas City desegregation case a few years ago, and it would be bad for a state judge to increase taxes and decide how the revenue would be spread among the school districts.

Some reform advocates think eliminating local property taxes and increasing state funding on a per-pupil basis is the way to go. Others believe schools will have to stand in line with all the other agencies and programs that want a portion of state revenue.

Finding a balance will be a Herculean task. The focus should be on uncovering the remaining pockets of waste and inefficiency in state government before considering tax increases. Even if it comes to that, there's still the big question of how to divvy up the education pot.

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