Crime, Tax-Cut Proposals Loom Large in Gubernatorial Races

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The lesson of Republican Christine Todd Whitman's 1992 gubernatorial victory, in which New Jersey voters gave her the nod largely because she promised to slash income taxes, was not lost on her colleagues.

While crime is the dominant theme in this year's 36 gubernatorial races, tax-cut proposals--along with their close cousin, property-tax relief--are also receiving significant attention.

In some cases, the candidates are proposing countervailing increases in other taxes; most are not. And several races pit Democrats who are championing tax reform against Republicans who contend it is not necessary.

Some candidates' tax-relief plans are designed, in part, to help equalize funding among school districts, and every candidate proposing cuts has asserted that it can be done without hurting schools. But education advocates are wary.

In Maryland, State Rep. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Republican who is the House minority leader, has made a plan to cut state income taxes by 24 percent over four years her campaign centerpiece.

Mrs. Sauerbrey contends that the tax cuts can be made without slashing school spending; instead, she proposes to cut other programs and freeze state-government hiring.

Her Democratic opponent, Parris N. Glendening, the county executive of Prince George's County, and his allies argue that it would be impossible to slash state spending that much without affecting school aid.

Opponents of tax-cutting candidates also note that Mrs. Whitman has so far delivered only a 5 percent income-tax cut--with an additional 10 percent cut coming in January--which has already led to decreases in school budgets and increases in local property taxes in New Jersey.

But that has not stopped others from copying Mrs. Whitman's winning platform.

A Winning Idea

In New York, Republican State Sen. George E. Pataki, who is leading Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo in many polls, has promised a 25 percent income-tax reduction over four years. That proposal was one reason that Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican Mayor of fiscally strapped New York City, last week endorsed Mr. Cuomo.

Mr. Cuomo has also talked about cutting income taxes but has not offered a specific plan.

In Nebraska, a similar proposal for a 10 percent income-tax cut has apparently not helped Republican Gene Spence, who trails Gov. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, in the polls.

Mr. Spence, a lawyer who owns a real-estate investment firm, would finance the cuts by slashing $80 million from unspecified state programs. He has also proposed capping local property taxes at 2 percent of assessed value--which would mean school districts and other local entities would find themselves with about 18 percent less revenue--as well as a one-year moratorium on property-tax hikes.

Most of the more than a dozen gubernatorial candidates who have property-tax-relief proposals have been careful not to propose raising other state taxes to pay for them.

One candidate who was not so cautious, Dawn Clark Netsch, the state comptroller in Illinois, may be regretting it. Ms. Netsch, the Democratic challenger, had based her campaign on a plan to finance property-tax cuts and increased school funding with income-tax increases. Polls have shown her trailing Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. (See related story.)

In Wisconsin, Democrat Charles Chvala, a state senator trying to unseat Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, has proposed a similar plan.

Property-tax limits approved last year have caused hardship in some state school districts and will become tighter in 1997. The legislature voted in March to appoint a study commission and pledged that the state would assume two-thirds of the school-funding burden by 1996. (See Education Week, May 18, 1994.)

Mr. Thompson contends that this promise can be kept by cutting some state programs, maintaining the controls on local school-spending increases, and relying on economic growth.

Mr. Chvala has proposed raising cigarette taxes, adding a sales tax to the fees charged by some professionals such as lawyers, and increasing income taxes on high-income individuals. He said his plan would give the average homeowner an $800 property-tax cut, as opposed to $46 under Mr. Thompson's plan. But Mr. Chvala's plan apparently has not paid off in the polls.

In Minnesota, Democratic State Sen. John Marty--who is trailing Republican Gov. Arne Carlson--has proposed financing property-tax cuts and increased spending on education, nutrition, and other social programs by increasing income taxes on wealthy taxpayers.

In Ohio, Democrat Rob Burch has declared that "education is the number-one issue," and dramatized his stance by touring the state in a rusting school bus dubbed the "Education Express."

"My message is simple," he said in announcing his tax plan. "If you want serious education-funding reform in Ohio, elect Rob Burch governor." Mr. Burch's proposal would cut property taxes in half over five years and would replace them with a combination of state sales and income taxes approved by voters in 1995.

Mr. Burch has also said that the state should not appeal a judge's ruling that the current finance system is unconstitutionally inequitable. (See Education Week, July 13, 1994.)

Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich said that his opponent's plan is "unrealistic" and that the existing finance system is "essentially sound."

"I think we should continue to do what we have done in the past, and that is to increase spending for education as we have," he told The Associated Press.

Shifts, Not Increases

Most gubernatorial candidates who are proposing school-funding changes have suggested shifting money from other state programs to replace property taxes, or changing the way taxes are administered. But it does not seem to be helping them any more than proposals to raise taxes have helped their colleagues.

In South Dakota, both major gubernatorial candidates--former Republican Gov. William J. Janklow and Jim Beddow, a former president of Dakota Wesleyan University--contend that property-tax relief can be achieved simply by cutting waste in state government and restraining other spending. That is a position the winner will be forced to revise if voters approve a tax-limitation initiative that educators say could cut local school budgets by about $350 million a year. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

Oregon is struggling with the aftermath of a 1990 property-tax-reduction initiative, but neither major candidate is proposing offsetting tax hikes there, either.

Democrat John Kitzhaber, a former state senator, has proposed delaying implementation of portions of a 1991 education-reform act, "re-examining" Oregon's equalization plan to avoid forcing cuts in some high-spending districts, and redirecting lottery dollars from economic development to education. Republican Denny Smith, a former U.S. representative, proposes freezing spending on everything but education and public-safety programs.

In other states, two Democratic challengers--New Hampshire State Sen. Wayne King and an Arizona businessman, Eddie Basha--have proposed replacing local property taxes with statewide property levies to equalize funding and reduce tax burdens in lower-income areas.

Both states are facing court orders to equalize school spending. But the Republican incumbents--Steve Merrill of New Hampshire and Fife Symington of Arizona--contend that constitutional requirements can be met without such drastic measures.

The issue is a high-profile one in both states--perhaps the top issue in New Hampshire--but addressing it does not seem to be swaying voters. Mr. Merrill, who has proposed giving state aid only to the poorest districts and tried to draw attention to nonfiscal issues, is leading in his race. Mr. Symington is not, but that primarily is because of questions about his business practices.

Even in Alabama, where a judge has made education a top issue by ordering lawmakers to increase the quality and equity of the state's schools, both major candidates have shied away from discussing the tax increases observers agree will almost certainly be required.

Gov. James E. Folsom Jr., a Democrat, has tried to avoid the issue, pledging that voters will have the chance to approve any increase. His Republican opponent, former Gov. Fob James Jr., has contended that no new funding will be required.

Private School Choice

School-choice proposals that would allow parents to use public funds to pay tuition at private schools are fairly popular among Republican candidates this year, as they have been for the past few election cycles.

In Maryland, Ms. Sauerbrey has based her entire education platform on choice. She calls for encouraging charter schools and alternative "schools within schools." But her primary proposal is to allow voters in each district to decide whether they will participate in a program that allows parents to opt for any participating public school or to accept a state "scholarship" for use at a private school.

In Florida and Texas, two of former President George Bush's sons have mounted G.O.P. challenges to incument Governors that include education as one item on a values-oriented, conservative agenda in which crime is the number-one priority. Both have stressed choice and local control of schools.

Florida's Jeb Bush, a businessman and former state secretary of commerce, is running against Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who has a long record as a friend of education. The education issue Mr. Bush has become identified with is his proposal for charter schools and a plan that would give parents vouchers in areas where schools do not meet standards set by local advisory councils.

Mr. Chiles has aired a commercial in which a parent argues that Mr. Bush's voucher plan would bankrupt the public schools.

In Texas, George W. Bush, a general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, Lonnie's memo says "general partner" has chosen to emphasize his proposals to increase school autonomy. He has called for "home rule" districts, in which voters would approve a charter defining how schools will be run. They would be subject to the state constitution and state performance goals but would not be bound by other state rules, such as those on class size and textbooks and the no-pass, no-play rule that bars failing students from some activities.

Mr. Bush belittles Democratic Gov. Ann W. Richards's support of charter schools and site-based management as "centralized control with permission slips." The Governor, however, argues that the rules Mr. Bush disdains are "fundamental standards of achievement."

In Georgia, Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, has extensively touted a state lottery he championed and the education programs it has paid for. He has used ads claiming that Republican Guy Millner, a businessman who opposed the lottery, would work to eliminate it. Mr. Millner said he supports some lottery-funded programs but that he wants the voters to approve periodically the game's continuation.

In South Carolina, Democratic Lieut. Gov. Nick Theodore has proposed a referendum on a lottery that would help finance education; Republican David Beasley, a former state legislator who chaired the House education committee, opposes the idea.

Vol. 14, Issue 09

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