Mo. Voters Reject Tax Increase for Schools, Colleges

By Lonnie Harp — November 13, 1991 5 min read

In a stinging defeat for education funding, Missouri voters last week overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to provide an additional $385 million for public schools and colleges.

The proposal, which would have been funded by an increase in sales and other taxes, was defeated even though it had the backing of the state’s political establishment and faced little organized opposition.

While the Missouri vote carried the most direct message for education, education-related issues also played a key role in major political shifts in two other states last week.

In New Jersey, voters lashed out at Democratic lawmakers who last year approved a massive tax-increase and school-finance-reform package, in the process giving Republicans commanding majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

In Mississippi, analysts attributed the upset defeat of Gov. Ray Mabus at least in part to voter frustration with his inability to reach a compromise with the legislature over funding for school reform.

Observers said the poor showing for education will make next year’s legislative deliberations over education spending more difficult as states confront deepening fiscal woes.

“Most states have large budget troubles facing them in 1992,” said Steve Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States at the Nelson A. Rockefeller institute of Government in Albany, N.Y. “The fact that the Missouri vote went as it did is going to make it a little harder, but it was already going to be hard.”

Still, Mr. Gold argued, last week’s results do not prove that lawmakers who back tax increases in order to protect education funding will be committing political suicide.

“A lot of instant analysts are saying the message is that tax increases will fail, but that ignores what has happened in Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kentucky,” Mr. Gold added.

Voters in Oklahoma last month upheld a tax-increase and school-reform plan passed by the legislature, and Nebraska voters last November turned back a similar repeal effort.

Kentucky’s $1.3-billion tax hike to pay for its 1990 school-reform law, meanwhile, did not prove to be a major issue in last week’s gubernatorial election. There, Lieut. Gov. Brereton C. Jones, a Democrat, easily defeated the c.o.p. contender, U.S. Representative Larry J. Hopkins.

‘Financial Paralysis’ Feared

Missouri school officials last week predicted that the defeat of the tax and reform measure, which lost by an unofficial vote of 622,468 to 303,653, will heighten many districts’ budget troubles.

“The collateral damage from this election could be significant,” said Commissioner of Education Robert E. Bartman. “Missouri is approaching the point of financial paralysis, with education and all other public services fighting over the crumbs of a shrinking budget.”

Politicians and analysts said last week that the plan lost because voters remained unconvinced that the new taxes were necessary and skeptical that the proceeds would actually be used for school reform.

Gov. John Ashcroft and other state leaders had worked to assure voters that the tax plan’s trust fund would guarantee that the money would not be diverted from sorely needed programs. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1991.)

Observers said last week, however, that either the Republican Governor’s message was not widely heard or did not carry enough clout.

“Obviously the voters of Missouri are living up to the Show Me image,’' said Lieut. Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat and likely candidate to succeed Mr. Ashcroft next year. “They were not sufficiently sold on the virtues of this plan.”

While backers of the proposal mounted a low-profile campaign, they enjoyed ample funding, spending nearly $1.5 million. By contrast, opponents spent only about $40,000.

Some analysts suggested that it was the plan’s proponents who had lost the contest, rather than being outmaneuvered by its opponents.

Kenneth F. Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University, criticized both the proposition and the campaign. The backing of Mr. Ashcroft was not very effective,

he said, because the two-term Governor has never been seen as a committed activist.

“John Ashcroft is not a progressive person even though he has targeted education,” Mr. Warren said. “A lot of people might think that the reason he supported this was only because he was on a guilt trip.”

Secretary of State Roy D. Blunt, a likely Republican gubernatorial candidate, agreed that the campaign proved unpersuasive, but said that the vote should not be seen as a blanket rejection of new spending.

‘What I was hearing mostly was that voters are willing to spend more money on education, but they were afraid that this was a back-door way to a general tax increase,” he said. “There was a great deal of concern about that, and a lot of skepticism in general about government.”

‘Real Frustration Out There’

Such sentiment was evident in New Jersey, where voters turned over control of the Senate and General Assembly to the Republican Party.

Running on pledges to roll back the tax hikes pushed through last year by the Democratic Governor, James J. Florio, Republicans gained a 14-vote majority in the 40-member Senate and a 36-vote margin in the 80’member Assembly--more than enough to override any Florio vetoes. In a number of districts, Republican candidates had the backing of the New Jersey Education Association, which was infuriated by Democratic legislators’ efforts first to shift funding for teacher pensions and later to cut new school aid to fund property-tax rebates. (See Education Week, Oct. 23, 1991.)

While the New Jersey results had been expected, voters’ discontent caught many observers off guard in Mississippi, where Governor Mabus was narrowly defeated by Kirk Fordice, a Vicksburg contractor. Mx. Fordice will be the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Most observers attributed the result to a swell of anti-incumbent sentiment fueled by Mr. Fordice’s campaign. Some cited the failure of Mr. Mabus’s school-reform plan as a symbol of voters’ frustration.

Although the reform bill passed the legislature last year, most of it never went into effect because of a deadlock between Mr. Mabus and lawmakers over where to get the money to pay for it.

Since then, economic problems have forced a series of budget cuts that have left schools struggling.

“There’s a real frustration out there, and people are saying they want a change,” said Jerry Sharp, principal of the Jefferson Middle School in Columbia and president of the Mississippi Congress of Parents and Teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Mo. Voters Reject Tax Increase for Schools, Colleges