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Voting 2012: More than just who you know

Election Day ballots this fall have lots of “whats” as well as the usual “whos” of a presidential election year.

Although most voters are focused on the candidates, every ballot in the Sauk Valley will also include a referendum or two – or even three.

At the top of the ballot – even ahead of the presidential candidates – is a proposed amendment to the state constitution that you can help to decide.

Lee County voters have a proposal for a 1 percent sales tax to construct and maintain public school buildings.

And several local governments have yes-or-no choices on a variety of propositions and public questions – which are their official ballot titles.

“Maybe” is not an option.

YOU MIGHT HAVE missed it, but Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White sent you an eight-page pamphlet in August to explain the referendum on changing the constitution.

It was printed on light blue paper, with the state symbol on the cover and the catchy title, “Proposed Amendment to Add Section 5.1 to Article XIII of the Illinois Constitution.”

And it was addressed to “Residential Customer, Illinois.”

How could you have failed to notice?

The informative booklet included the exact language you will see on your ballot, as well as arguments in favor of and against the proposal.

What it didn’t explain was the political back story.

WHAT YOU WILL BE asked on the constitution question is whether you think the state Legislature should need a three-fifths majority to increase a benefit of any public pension or retirement system.

As you probably know, the public pension system is a mess in Illinois.

That is because the Legislature (usually Democratic) has long pandered to public employee unions for their political support by bestowing impossibly generous pension benefits. And those unions, which exist in their own state of denial, foolishly thought those unsustainable benefits were forever.

Unfortunately, none of the parties involved had ever studied history or math. Thus, the cyclical dips in the economy conspired with an actuarially unsound system to put state pensions in the hole by billions of dollars.

Sure, the Legislature could have increased state taxes to criminally confiscatory levels to keep the pension systems sound, but that would have been neither fair nor logical – and it would have been political suicide.

Rather than honestly work to solve the difficult problem, state legislators have offered you a constitutional amendment to make you think they’re doing something about it.

In the end, it really will make no difference how you vote, or whether this proposed amendment passes or fails.

The horse has long since fled the barn.

WITHOUT A DOUBT, the most high-profile campaign in Lee County has nothing to do with any candidate on the ballot.

Newspaper ads, billboards and radio commercials are promoting passage of the 1 percent sales tax. It is a well-run campaign that seeks to persuade Lee County voters that a sales tax will provide public schools with reliable income to build and maintain facilities – which usually is funded with property taxes.

Opponents of the referendum are not nearly so organized, but they might not need to be to defeat a tax increase amid a down economy and increased skepticism about the efficiency of local government.

Depending on the numbers you choose to use, the proposed tax will affect different parts of the county differently.

“Qualified” purchases in most of Lee County are subject to the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. But Dixon city government has its own one-half percent tax that brings the total tax in the city to 6.75 percent.

If you add a 1 percent sales tax for schools, the sales tax will increase by 14.8 percent in Dixon, which some opponents who enjoy having fun with math have routinely rounded up to 15 percent.

But the sales tax outside Dixon would increase by 16 percent, a figure no one has tried to exploit – yet.

To make it really ugly, strip away the state rate and deal with the purely “local” sales tax in Dixon. Going from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent would be a 200 percent increase in the local sales tax!

However you figure it, it’s still the same 1 percent sales tax for schools – basically, a penny on the dollar.

Yes, or No?

ALTHOUGH residents of Grand Detour and Lost Nation are in a school district (Dixon) that would benefit from the sales tax, they won’t get to vote on the referendum.

A caller from Grand Detour asked this week whether voters in those communities – which are in Ogle County – would see the referendum on their ballots.

The answer is, No.

It would be a Lee County tax, not a school district tax, so only Lee County voters will have a say, and only Lee County sales will be affected.

So, the Shell station in Grand Detour will avoid the new sales tax that would increase the cost of a fill-up or a snack run.

But since gas prices at that station are normally 10 cents a gallon higher than its Dixon competitors, it would not pay to drive over the county line to avoid the tax.

But some people might do that, on principle alone.

WHAT OTHER “whats” are on the ballot?

Lots of communities will vote on giving local government officials the authority to negotiate a lower rate for electricity for their residents.

Among them are the Lee County villages of Nelson and West Brooklyn, and Palmyra and Willow Creek townships; city of Prophetstown and village of Lyndon in Whiteside County; and one village and nine townships in Ogle County.

But not Dixon, which twice has rejected rate “aggregation.” Those voters are not going to be tricked into lower rates.

The city of Oregon, like Lee County, has a 1 percent sales tax on the ballot. It would pay for “public infrastructure and property tax relief.”

Erie voters will consider hiking the property tax rate of the fire protection district to 0.4 percent – a 33 percent increase from the current 0.3 percent.

Lee County voters in Mendota School District 289 will vote on whether to elect all school board members at large, while Prophetstown voters will decide whether trustees of the fire protection district should be elected rather than appointed.

Mount Morris will ask voters whether they want to allow video gambling machines inside their Ogle County village, a new revenue stream for state and local governments that the Legislature approved just this year.

But then, elections are always a gamble, aren’t they?

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