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Shifting the burden

Question 1 would raise minimum property tax for schools.

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Amid the clamor about gay marriage and economic development incentives, there’s another item on the Nov. 2 ballot that’s drawn a surprisingly small amount of attention, given what it’s trying to do. Referred Question 1 would raise the minimum property tax rate for schools’ maintenance and operations budgets from 25 to 28 mills, generating another $85 million for the state’s education effort. Amendment 74 set the minimum rate at 25 mills, but authorized the legislature to ask voters to approve an increase. All of that 25 mills currently goes to the state for redistribution to local districts. Under this ballot initiative, districts that already levy more than 28 mills (including Little Rock and North Little Rock) wouldn’t see their tax rates go up. But they would have to send 28 mills worth of tax revenue to the state, instead of 25 mills. Districts with fewer than 28 maintenance and operations mills would have to raise taxes — they could not use extra debt-service mills to make up the difference. So Pulaski County voters would see their property taxes go up slightly — the current millage rate for maintenance and operations is 25.8. That works out to $66 for a house worth $150,000. State Sen. Jim Argue, D-Little Rock, called the proposal "an extremely hard sell." "I will certainly vote for it, but I’m not aware of anyone who’s organized to support it," he said. State Rep. Bill Stovall, the Quitman Democrat who’s in line to be speaker of the House if he wins re-election next month, wrote the legislation that became Referred Question 1. The state faces hundreds of millions of dollars in new education costs as a result of the Lake View court decision, which said the state is responsible for maintaining an equitable and adequate system of schools. A sales tax hike went into effect last summer, but it won’t be enough to take care of school building needs. Argue pointed out that while Arkansas’s overall tax burden hits in about the middle compared with other states, the way that burden is distributed is out of whack: The state ranks fifth in sales tax, but ties for 49th in property tax. He said he supports shifting more of the burden of financing schools to property taxes because they’re more reliable and because they can be deducted from state and federal income taxes.

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