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School tax question splits Minn. governor hopefuls

  • Article by: BRIAN BAKST
  • Associated Press
  • June 22, 2010 - 3:14 PM

MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota's candidates for governor took different stands Tuesday on proposals granting school boards more power to raise property taxes without going to voters first.

At an education-themed forum, four hopefuls were asked about the requirement that voters approve a referendum before school districts can impose higher taxes. School associations have pushed in recent years to relax the law and permit boards to set tax levies on their own, much like city governments.

Minnesota districts have increasingly turned to local tax levies to raise money for classroom costs because their per-pupil state allowances are mostly stagnant. The so-called excess levies are separate from those that pay for new or renovated buildings, which are measures also subject to voter approval.

Democrat Matt Entenza, a former legislator, said he opposes doing away with the referendum requirement. Rival Mark Dayton, a former U.S. senator, took a more nuanced stance, saying he wants referenda to remain for building projects but wouldn't rule out a change for levies tied to classroom operating costs.

"My goal and my priority is to make them unnecessary," Dayton said, referring to his call for the state to boost its spending on schools by raising income taxes on the highest-paid residents.

Among IP candidates, Tom Horner was open to the no-referendum concept. The public relations executive said it's a way to hold school boards more accountable for tax and spending decisions. But he did voice some reservations.

"Does this become an excuse for the state to further reduce the public commitment?" Horner asked. "We have to guard against that."

His main primary election opponent, publisher Rob Hahn, said it would be wrong to take voters out of the equation.

"It's their money, it's their district, it's their community," Hahn said. "I don't think the board should have carte blanche, if you will, for the board to raise the levy."

Districts currently have narrow authority to bypass voters on tax levies for certain health and safety programs, such as school security.

Two other gubernatorial contenders — Republican Tom Emmer and Democrat Margaret Anderson Kelliher — were absent from the forum staged by the left-of-center Growth & Justice think tank.

Asked about her views at a separate event Tuesday, Kelliher said she would keep the referendum requirement in place for new tax levies and those tied to school construction projects. But the Minnesota House speaker said she would favor giving boards power to renew expiring levies without going back to voters.

Emmer's campaign didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.

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