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Olson and GOP: No Money for Schools, Plenty to Subsidize Private Development

Incoming (that's what teachers and school boards should start shouting any time Republicans enter the room) South Dakota Senate Majority Leader Russell Olson demonstrates the warped free market fundamentalism that pollutes our public policy.

At the end of the 2010 Legislative session, Senator Olson voted to short K-12 education millions of dollars, despite the fact there was 2.2% more wealth available in South Dakota. He doesn't appear to have any vision for avoiding even deeper cuts to education in the 2011 session. Education just isn't worth more creative thinking and funding in Olson's world.

But check out what he told the city commission and economic development corporation in Colman about how Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts work:

Russell Olson, manager of community and economic development for Heartland Consumers Power District in Madison, gave the group an update on Colman's TIF district.

A TIF is a mechanism used to promote economic development on a local basis. The increased tax revenue is the "tax increment," which is dedicated to financing debt issued to pay for the project.

"This instrument allows the use of property taxes on a specific project while not harming the general fund of the school district," Olson said. "The state of South Dakota makes up any shortfall to the school, thus keeping them secure" [Staff, "Colman Officials Discuss TIF District, Future Growth," Madison Daily Leader, 2010.12.27].

Now consider: in Olson's thinking, Pierre can't spend more on education itself. Show Olson a school district where they need a foreign language teacher or classroom renovations or cost-of-living increases for staff salaries, and he'll turn his pockets inside-out and shrug. But show Olson a school district where the city is subsidizing some private developer's effort to put up new businesses or houses (which just might use more of the electricity Russ's organization sells), and Pierre can find more money to send.

Education funding should be simple. Kids need to learn. Teachers need to eat. Find the money, invest in our future workers and leaders.

But maybe that sounds too socialist for our Republican leaders. They can't just spend money on people. They have to construct these Rube Goldberg machines of subsidies for their entrepreneur pals and paste comforting labels of "economic development" on the front, even though TIF districts are a much greater intrusion of government into the free market than funding schools.

I'd suggest that schools could take the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" route, get their local governments to establish TIF districts everywhere they can, and then hit Pierre up for the difference in school-funding revenue. But that only gets more Rube Goldbergy. Let's just raise revenue by imposing a corporate income tax and use the money to meet the basic democratic and constitutional mandate to provide free education to all citizens.