High court upholds authority of schools to raise levy rates

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Public school districts escaped a potential hit to their budgets Tuesday as the Missouri Supreme Court ruled the constitution allows districts to set property tax rates at certain levels without voter approval.

In 1998, Missouri voters amended the state constitution to allow local school boards to unilaterally set tax rates as high as $2.75 per $100 assessed valuation. The measure, known as Amendment 2, was ratified with 58.8 percent support.

However, a group of Morgan County taxpayers said Amendment 2 conflicted with the 1980 Hancock Amendment, which caps how much additional revenue school districts and other taxing entities can raise without a public vote.

Writing for the court, Judge Michael A. Wolff said there is no conflict, as passage of Amendment 2 itself provided the voter approval needed to satisfy the Hancock requirement.

When constitutional provisions are in conflict, the court said the one last ratified prevails "as it is the most recent expression of the will of the people."

The decision protects the levies of at least 111 school districts, including 22 in Southeast Missouri, that used Amendment 2 to raise a combined $27.7 million in taxes. The Advance, Kelly, Meadow Heights, Zalma and Woodland districts are among those that did so.

Last year, about one out of every five public school districts took advantage of the 1998 constitutional amendment to raise $27.7 million in taxes without voter approval, according to a report issued by State Auditor Claire McCaskill.

The purpose of Amendment 2 was to make it easier for districts to comply with the 1993 Outstanding Schools Act, which required districts to have an authorized levy of at least $2.75 to qualify for full state funding.

Advance schools superintendent Michael Redman said the court's decision is good news, though if it had gone the other way the district would have had to lower its levy only a few cents.

"It allows us to keep our tax rate constant," Redman said.

With its ruling, the court affirmed a circuit judge's dismissal of the case.

Attorneys for the Morgan County School District argued Amendment 2 would be meaningless if it didn't trump Hancock. The Missouri Council of School Administrators and Missouri School Boards Association supported that view in a friend-of-the-court brief.

"We had anticipated that ruling but are glad to see the court put it down on paper," said Penney Rector, an MCSA lawyer.

The taxpayers' attorneys claimed the two provisions provided separate limitations on unilateral tax increases. They argued districts could only invoke Amendment 2 if the amount of revenue generated by a levy increase wouldn't bust the Hancock lid.

Associated Industries of Missouri and the state Chamber of Commerce weighed in on behalf of the taxpayers.

Associated Industries president and chief executive officer Gary Marble said the ruling further erodes the state's business climate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

mpowers@semissourian.com

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