TABOR undermines local control and ignores the fact that taxpayer-supported public services are some of the best values around.
Truth to TABOR
The property tax bill on our family home in Stevens Point this year was $1,841.22. It is a nice three-bedroom home on a small lot in an older section of this city. Quite average, really, but we try to take good care of it.
The property tax bill covers levies for the city, Portage County, the state of Wisconsin, the Stevens Point School District and Mid-State Technical Institute. I walked down to the city treasurer's office December 30 and paid the bill. I did so gladly.
On the short walk home, I considered all the amenities and necessities covered by that property tax bill. They are many, from safety and good roads to fine schools and beautiful parks. Ask almost anyone who lives here, and they'll say this is great little city.
We have lived in our home for 15 years, and the property tax bill has increased little in that time. Many of the people who run our city government, schools and the county are familiar folks around town. We get a whack at them every few years in local elections.
Folks around here don't always agree with them, and now and then we send one of them packing. All in all, though, it's a good bunch, and one that watchful citizens keep an eye on pretty well.
Why, then, would we want to turn over the control of our local affairs to strangers in the Legislature? That's what some power-hungry lawmakers who favor the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) want us to do. They want to exert state controls over the services my local community provides. Do I want someone from Peshtigo to decide how I live here in Stevens Point? Are any of my neighbors on the old south side of town calling for this? The answers are no and no.
We need a taxpayer bill of rights all rightl; one that tells ideologues in Madison to keep their noses out of our local affairs. If we don't like the way our city government runs, we know where our city officials work, where they go to church and where they have a beer on Friday night. We can tell them ourselves. People around here aren't the least bit shy about speaking up. We certainly don't need some blowhard from who-knows-where to watch out for us.
State government has tried to limit local tax levy authority in the past. When Pat Lucey's administration did so in the 1970s, some local folks said it was big-government communism. What does that make TABOR?
One can only assume that the lawmakers who favor this power grab come from communities with substandard local schools and governments. Well, let them go home and squeeze a little tighter, maybe close a school or two, or cut back on library hours. But don't drag the rest of us down to that low level.
It would be interesting to hear what these lawmakers who oppose local control would say if the shoe were on the other foot. What if the federal government decided to pull the same trick? Imagine that, the federal taxpayer bill of rights, which would prescribe for states how and to what extent they should fund the services they provide. The only way to do this, of course, would be to set all sorts of federal standards and guideposts, beyond which states would not be allowed to go. That would go over like a thunderstorm on the Fourth of July.
Who knows whether TABOR will pass? I hope it doesn't, but if it does, cities like Stevens Point will likely have no recourse but to charge nonresidents all kinds of fees for services. Parks, roads, public safety in workplaces, and a bevy of services would have to be covered. The local swimming pool would have to charge kids from nearby municipalities extra, or those municipalities would have to make payments to the city for those services. We'll have to call them state-mandated local fees for services, because the state will have removed our authority to tend to local business as we see fit.
People in some outlying communities around here get worked up over Smart Growth, under the assumption that it's some kind of plot to remove local control. The fact is, there is such a plot, but it's not Smart Growth. It's TABOR. Its proponents had better not come to some of the neighborhoods around here touting that scheme. They might not like the local reaction.
February 7, 2006
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Bill Berry is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Stevens Point and writes columns for the Capital Times and other publications.