Following up on one of his chief priorities as a legislator, state Rep. Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro) last week unveiled a plan to send additional money to school districts around the state.

Unger has proposed a bill that would exempt school property taxes from abatements offered through the state’s Strategic Investment Program (SIP), which encourages businesses to create more jobs by offering various tax breaks for business expansion projects.

Unger’s bill would shield school districts from having to give up property tax revenues.

“It’s a really simple bill,” Unger said. “Every place where a tax is abated, you can’t abate school district dollars — they have to stay.”

Unger said his bill could have a huge impact.

“About $379 million, if not abated, would go into the school districts,” he explained.

Unger added that school districts are often at the mercy of other political jurisdictions when it comes to tax dollars.

“In this case, the school district is not in control of its own dollars because everyone else takes a bit of the pie,” said Unger. “The idea is how to get school districts to have control over their own dollars.”

Unger pointed out that despite its simplicity, the concept may become controversial.

“The problem is, no school district in the county would ever want to be in a situation where they are saying no to jobs,” Unger said.

But Unger believes school districts should be off limits.

“Everything we’ve done in the last year has helped to stabilize schools,” Unger said. “The problem is, we’ve stabilized at this low level. We’ve lost 1,000 teachers in Washington County in the last seven years, while the student population has gone up by 3,000. Getting our schools back to health is a long road with no easy path. It’s hard stuff.”

Unger’s bill went to the Senate’s Revenue Committee Jan. 23, and he believes the bill’s chances of getting out of the Revenue Committee are good.

“That’s a thoughtful bunch; a top-notch committee,” said Unger.

Bipartisan appeal

Unger added that the bill has some bipartisan appeal.

“Some of the Republicans see this as a worthwhile discussion, because there’s a fiscal responsibility piece to this,” he explained.

Unger said he is trying to highlight the benefits of the bill before his plan is given a negative spin by political opponents.

“We’re trying to build up a buzz and create enough positive news coverage so my colleagues are not afraid of facing a controversial set of issues,” Unger said Thursday.

Some opponents of the bill are already trying to stoke controversy, however.

Dan Mason, a Republican running against incumbent state Rep. Joe Gallegos (D-Hillsboro), indicated he will use Unger’s proposed bill in his campaign.

On Monday, he blasted Unger’s bill — and Gallegos for apparently supporting it.

“Here in Washington County, we’ve had two legislators actively try and end the incentives Intel has used to create jobs right here in our backyard,” said Mason. “While other parts of the state are suffering double-digit unemployment, we’ve got growth and expansion. I want to make sure those mechanisms are protected, so our county continues to lead the state in economic prosperity.”

Mason said the tax benefits to Intel and other large companies help the county across the board — including in local school districts — and he believes the extra tax revenue from more employees in the county are critical to the county’s success.

“With that added prosperity, we need to make sure our schools and transportation infrastructure are growing and thriving to keep pace,” Mason said.

Unger dismissed the notion his bill is directed at any specific industries or companies, including Intel.

“Intel is a great corporate partner,” Unger said.

Unger said he is aware of the possible economic impacts on large companies if some of the funds in these tax breaks are removed, but believes the benefits to schools outweigh the impacts to some businesses.

“For Intel, this would amount to about $70 million, but for a company that big, it’s not a back-breaking amount,” Unger said. “Still, clearly this is not popular in the business community. They see the SIP funds as, if not the engine, at least the gasoline that fuels the state’s economy. But we’ve let all these slivers be taken away from the education pie, and here’s a way to dump money back in.”

Mason said he believes Unger’s legislation is on the wrong track.

“Make no mistake, when it comes to smart business growth that leads to a stable economy, Washington County is winning,” said Mason. “As we expand our employment base and bring additional higher-paying jobs into our community, we expand that revenue pool that can be used to build roads and schools. And the income tax generated by the extra jobs goes right into the statewide school fund. Unger’s proposal is reckless, extreme, and puts Hillsboro’s future in serious danger.”

Unger said he is looking forward to the February session, when legislators can start putting facts and figures on the table, adding that he does not buy the argument that his bill could result in lost jobs and possibly less money for school districts in the overall tax pool.

“I’m willing to put a teacher’s job against any other job, any day of the week,” Unger said. “Teacher jobs meet all the criteria of the type of jobs we want to create.”

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