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State Journal: Ethics; Poetics

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A bitter fight has erupted in South Dakota over a property-tax-limitation proposal that will be on the state ballot in November, and proponents have accused school groups fighting the measure of using unethical tactics.

Initiative I would limit property taxes to 1 percent of a property's assessed value and limit increases to 1.25 percent. Opponents say this could cost schools and local governments up to $350 million a year.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that includes the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, the School Administrators of South Dakota, and the South Dakota Education Association, has raised a $50,000 war chest.

Last month, the school boards' group raised eyebrows with a letter urging superintendents and boards to "solicit local school suppliers of goods and services to contribute to the cause," and warning that the tax cut would "close a very large number of schools and/or eliminate much local control."

At the least, such tactics are "unethical," Charles Wagner, a spokesman for Dakota I, a group favoring the plan, said.

But officials of the boards' group said they have every right to inform their members.

"There is a widely held perception that state and local taxes are very high" in South Dakota, said Henry Kosters, the group's director of research and information, but they are "below the national average."

While initiative backers say the legislature could opt to replace the lost funds, opponents note that it would not be required to.

A judge's rhetorical flourish in his July decision striking down Ohio's school-finance system set up a whodunit.

Judge Linton D. Lewis Jr. quoted from the poem "The Bridge Builder," whose author he said was anonymous.

In a news conference announcing the state's appeal, however, Gov. George V. Voinovich claimed the poem was penned by someone with a vested interest--William L. Phillis, the head of the coalition that is suing the state.

"Reporters called me and said, 'We didn't know that you were such a good poet,'" said Mr. Phillis, who has used the poem in speeches, but denied authorship.

State Rep. Michael C. Shoemaker backed him up, saying the poem was a favorite of his late father's.

The real author, it turned out, was the Tennessee poet Will Allen Dromgoole, who died in 1934.

--Laura Miller & Drew Lindsay

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