Voters penalize underfunded government by cutting funds

THE ISSUE: The lopsided failure of a tax-increase proposal for Lawrence County Schools underlines a problem facing the state. Poor funding reduces the quality of services, and voters are unwilling to pay more for a low-quality governmental product.

Bumping along at the state minimum in property tax and hampered by low sales tax revenue, Lawrence County Schools struggled even before the devastating closure of International Paper Co. last year. One consequence of the funding shortage was the consolidation of Hazelwood, Mount Hope and Speake high schools in 2009. Another consequence was an inability to fund programs to increase lagging student performance.

Lawrence County residents were understandably frustrated at the consolidation and rightfully concerned that their schools put limited funding into programs designed to improve student achievement levels.

Lawrence County voters shot down a proposed 10-mill property tax increase Tuesday by a 4-1 margin.

As one voter said of the consolidation, “I haven’t seen any improvement in the schools even when we consolidated. So why vote for higher taxes?”

The problem with this approach, of course, is that we get what we pay for. Government services suffer when inadequately funded. If voters penalize their government by withholding funding, then services decline even more.

It’s a downward spiral that’s not limited to Lawrence County.

State legislators believe — probably correctly — that voters do not want an increase in taxes. That’s despite the fact Gov. Robert Bentley, among the loudest of the anti-tax crusaders before and during his first term, now says additional revenue is the only way to maintain essential state services.

One of Bentley’s biggest hurdles is the accurate perception among voters that state government is broken. Alabama is failing dismally at maintaining its prisons, providing health care for the poor, maintaining its roads, operating its court system and policing its highways.

Many voters look at this dysfunctional government and wonder why they would ever agree to increase their financial support of it.

Before the damage is irreversible, we can hope voters will find the capacity to trust the executives they elected. Bentley crippled state government in his effort to delay the inevitable request for more funding.

In Lawrence County, elected Superintendent Heath Grimes has taken unpopular steps in his effort to cope with dwindling funds.

If voters continue to respond to inadequate government services by refusing to fund improvements, they will continue to get what they pay for.

(Published May 3, 2015)

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