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Column

State must ease burden on property owners

The governor, his opponent in November, and all state lawmakers must make it a priority to make dramatic changes to the way we fund public schools in Illinois. The status quo is untenable.

Property owners in Illinois are paying some of the country's highest property tax rates, and they are doing it largely to support public schools, which account for about two-thirds of local tax bills.

Complaints about property tax rates are nothing new in Illinois, but the Great Recession and the devastating effect it had on property values have made the situation untenable. In response to property value declines around the state, property tax rates simply went up. Tax cap laws, designed to protect homeowners in a time of value inflation, left them exposed when values tanked.

Changing this should be at the top of the legislative agenda in Springfield. Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed a property tax freeze, giving residents the power to reduce their taxes through a popular vote, and a proposal to change pension payouts.

His Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker, backs a shift to a graduated income tax, which would require a constitutional amendment. In the interim, he proposes increasing the state's flat tax rate – now at 4.95 percent – and boosting credits and deductions for lower-income earners.

We favor solutions that will not impose new taxes on our citizens and will offer them some relief. There is waste in state government — consider the more than $1.1 billion Illinois has paid in late-payment fees since July 2015.

Legislators in the Illinois House last month did approve a proposal that would require the starting salary for full-time public school teachers be at least $40,000 a year beginning with the 2019-20 school year. They did not make any accommodation for school districts that might not already meet this minimum, though.

The change could lead to consolidation of school districts, higher property taxes, or both. Too often, lawmakers issue decrees and leave it to the folks back home to figure out how to afford them.

Teachers are not shutting down our schools the way they have in several other states this spring. Illinois teachers are among the best-paid in the Midwest, earning an average salary of $61,342 a year, according to a 2017 report from the National Education Association. Only Michigan paid its teachers marginally more a year on average.

The way we finance our schools, however, places an undue burden on people with lesser means to pay and creates unequal access to education around Illinois. It also creates barriers to attracting and retaining businesses.

Quality schools are a must for Illinois children — all of them. Reducing school property tax rates is the only way to make any significant change in the burden on homeowners. The urgency is enhanced by changes to federal tax law that cap deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000. Simply increasing another type of tax or fee without offering meaningful reductions in property taxes will not do.

Illinois needs a dramatic change to the status quo in Springfield. This election year, all voters should seek candidates who offer the best plans for reducing the burden on property owners while maintaining and improving the quality of our schools.

— Shaw Media

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