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Budget shuffle

08/26/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks that the state is using some tricky accounting practices to balance the state budget - and that ultimately property owners will be the ones who have to foot the bill.


(Gilbert) With little discussion, the governor and a select panel of legislators have decided to raid the Education Fund to balance the state budget.

Should you care? You bet. What's going on is some tricky accounting that in the end will raise your property taxes -- or make it harder for your school to pay its bills.

State officials are trying to paper over the problem. They're offering an explanation that doesn't tell the whole story.

The Education Fund - as well as the new Tobacco Trust Fund, which is also being hit up for some "spare" cash - were established for specific purposes. The Ed Fund was set up to pay for schools; the Tobacco Fund was set up to help people stop smoking. The funds were not intended to be the state's cookie jars.

I follow education issues closely, so it's the Ed Fund that I've been thinking a lot about. The governor and the legislators who serve on the Joint Fiscal Committee are hitting it up for $9 million.

The state defends the raid. Administration and legislative officials say it's flush with cash. Property tax revenue has poured into the Ed Fund as home values have rocketed in the last five years. Indeed, your property tax bill has likely gone up even if your school's spending didn't - simply because the value of your house went up. Higher house values, higher taxes. Higher taxes, more money into the Ed Fund. More money into the Ed Fund, more temptation to skim off a few million dollars for other purposes.

The temptation must be hard to resist. After all, the state doesn't actually have to take any money from the fund at all - it just needs to give less. To save a few million it simply doesn't transfer all of the money that education law says it should.

The only good news is that all towns will be hit by this underfunding. That's an improvement over what happened in the last recession, when the state's budget was balanced on the backs of property-poor towns. But the bad news is that the $9 million being withheld is $9 million the Education Fund won't have. When that $9 million is ultimately needed for local schools, you can bet the state won't pay the fund back - the $9 million will come out of increased property taxes.

This whole situation could have been avoided had lawmakers explored other options during the last legislative session. They could, in fact, have recouped nearly the entire projected state deficit by simply closing the private fundraising loophole that some towns use to avoid paying their fair share of school taxes. This loophole will cost the state $31 million in lost revenue this year.

During the upcoming political campaigns, you might ask candidates if they favor raiding the Education Fund to paper over the state's shortfall. Ask them if they're willing to balance the state's books on the backs of local property taxpayers - and to then claim that they didn't raise taxes.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.
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