An ill-advised legislative plan to drain $30 million a year from state highway funds to bolster school spending will soon be considered in the House and Senate. This is a classic example of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and in the end making both of them poorer. Instead we should finally take a hard look at some of the wasteful tax credits and other areas of abuse that push the state budget to the brink year after year.
If we want to inject extra dollars into the classroom, it makes no sense to shift money from one essential priority of state government to another. This isn’t the first time such a flawed policy has surfaced at the Capitol. When lawmakers sought to boost school funding in the 1990s, part of the strategy was to shift motor fuel tax revenues from road building to schools.
As a result, the state highway budget suffered, leaving some critical projects unfunded. The residents of Purcell might not be driving miles out of their way today because of a worn-out bridge if we had taken care of the business of maintaining and improving highways decades ago.
It will take time and will to address the myriad dysfunctions in the structure of a state government that costs hundreds of millions more than it should. We have 500-plus school districts, 52 separate college campuses, 62 CareerTech campuses and 231 county commissioners with separate crews, barns and fleets of equipment. In all these cases there is money to be saved and services to improve.
But we could inject twice the projected $30 million into the school budget tomorrow with one simple action. The five-year property tax exemption granted to wind farm developers (and reimbursed by the state) and the zero emission tax credit granted those same developers will total a combined $56.5 million this year. Those two tax credits alone are projected to approach $90 million by 2018, at an estimated six-year cost to the state treasury of $424 million.