Freeze property taxes. That is one of two key points Gov. Bruce Rauner is pressing home on Democratic legislators in exchange for negotiating on a budget.
I’m actually amazed Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan didn’t jump all over that one.
You see, when it comes to property taxes, state officials have absolutely no skin in the game. The state government doesn’t make any money off of local property taxes, which help fund cities, villages, townships, library districts, fire districts and, most importantly, public schools.
About 60 percent of the average property tax bill funds public education in Illinois, although there are some school districts where that amount is as high as 80 percent.
And that’s why, as the governor himself noted, this state has the most unfair and inequitable school funding system in the nation. That’s why one study put Illinois dead last in the share of school funding provided by the state.
That means some of the poorest school districts in the state, with low property values, spend less on their schools, while some of the wealthiest spend the most on public education.
After a previous column in which I accused every politician in Illinois of lying about education funding, a reader noted that while I had repeatedly criticized Rauner, I had failed to mention Madigan.
I have been writing about Madigan’s role in defeating school funding reform legislation for more than 20 years. He is one of the masterminds behind this scheme to place the burden for school funding on local property owners.
The Illinois Constitution reads in part: “The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public school through the secondary level shall be free. … The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”
As it has done in so many other areas, including pensions, the state simply ignored its responsibility and placed the financial burden squarely on the shoulders of homeowners and business owners.
I can understand why people are unhappy about their skyrocketing property tax bills. It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. The system is untenable for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is forcing many Illinois residents to sell their homes (their largest investments) and move out of state.
But a freeze on property taxes, without a new source of school funding, would not improve the schools. It would not help children.
The reason I criticized Rauner in my column is that he’s the new kid on the block when it comes to the school funding con game. I wanted to put him on notice, as I have Madigan and his followers for years, that his double-talk had been noted.
Madigan has enjoyed years of legislative success by shifting the burden for public school funding from the state to local school districts. Voters don’t blame him for that. They scream at their local school boards, even their mayors, who have nothing to do with property taxes for the schools.
People simply don’t understand either the school funding system or how their property taxes are calculated. This too is by design.
Madigan’s law firm has made millions of dollars by appealing the property tax bills of large business clients.
Illinois has been cited in national studies as among the worst states in the union in terms of its support for public education.
Yet, there seems to be no sense of embarrassment about that in Springfield. We didn’t pay our pension bills and we didn’t pay the cost for educating our children. That’s just the way it goes.
And that was during the good years, when Illinois lawmakers could agree on a budget and Republicans and Democrats worked together.
I think Madigan had to be smiling at least a little when he heard about Rauner’s property tax freeze plan. It was just the sort of thing he might have proposed. It costs the lawmakers absolutely nothing and does great harm to school funding in Illinois.