SCHOOL DISTRICTS HAVE TO RECEIVE VOTERS’ APPROVAL TO RAISE TAXES
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – School districts would have to receive the approval of voters to raise taxes more than 50 mills under a bill approved Tuesday by the state House of Representatives.
“The bill will bring more community support rather than less as people get a full explanation of the finances of the district,” said Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, chairman of the House Education Committee and author of the bill.
“It also will force the state to be more responsible in sharing the total wealth of the state. It will force us (legislators) to stop passing unfunded mandates on the local districts. And it will force the state, which has many revenue sources, to meet more of the needs.”
But Rep. Reecy Dickson, D-Macon, who voted against the bill, said, “I believe in giving the districts the opportunity to be creative. I respect their ability to make decisions for the district.”
Dickson, the former Noxubee County School superintendent, said most districts already are trying to lower property taxes. With the additional money provided by the 1-cent sales tax passed in 1992, many districts have been able to lower property taxes.
McCoy’s bill passed 87-31. Because it was a revenue measure, it needed a three-fifths vote, or 71 members, to pass.
The 50-mill cap is placed only on the operational budget. If a district wants to go above that 50-mill cap, voters have to approve it. The 22 districts in the state already above the 50-mill cap must get voter approval every time they raise taxes. A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property. In Mississippi, property is assessed at a percentage of its true value.
McCoy stressed the 50-mill cap only covered the district’s operational budget. This would include the money that goes toward salaries for personnel, for maintenance and for some of the transportation costs among other things.
The tax levy for other areas, such as to build buildings or buy buses, probably would not be included in the operational total. If a district had levied 35 mills for operational costs, but had 20 mills in other areas, that school system still could raise taxes without a vote.
Under current law, if the increase is between 4 percent and 7 percent, people can petition to vote. If it is more than 7 percent, a vote is required.
The reason the cap is placed just on the operational budget, McCoy said, is because people already have the opportunity to vote on most other millage issues. For instance, before a district passes bonds for construction, people have the opportunity to vote.
McCoy said, “We have tried to be reasonable. If you go beyond that, people ought to have the right to vote.”
But others contended that local people could decide the issue without voting every time taxes are raised. Opponents said local people have the option to vote out school board members who raise taxes too much. And if it is an appointed school board, the elected city officials could be voted out. Then the new city officials could appoint different school board members.
“That’s the process,” Dickson said, referring to giving local people the right to vote out of office people who raise taxes.
The only school district in Northeast Mississippi at the cap is Chickasaw, with total millage of exactly 50 mills. Lee County has an operational millage rate of 38.23 mills. Tupelo’s operational millage rate is 44.33. The average statewide for the school districts’ operational budgets is 37.93 mills.
The bill now goes to the Senate where it is expected to have a much more difficult time being passed.
All Northeast Mississippi House members voted for it except Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville; David Gibbs, D-West Point; Harvey Moss, D-Corinth; Alfred Walker, D-Columbus. Joe Mitch McElwain, D-Ripley, did not vote.