Editorial: Tax referendum reminds everyone whose money it is

News-Sun Editorial Board
Democracy is a handshake.

Citizens put some of their hopes and dreams of a better life in the hands of government. In return, government is supposed to spend the money wisely and remember who provided the cash.

In a state with 6,963 different taxing bodies and the highest median property tax in the country, it was bound to happen eventually.

Sooner or later a local government was going to ask local taxpayers if they wanted more control before heavier property taxes were imposed, even though Lake County’s annual tax leaps already are capped at 5 percent.

When the residents of Wauconda and Fox River Grove got the chance to answer that question on Election Day, their stampede to the polls to yell “Yes” was thunderous.

That’s a signal that voters are not only choking on heavier taxes, but they are peeved at public officials who have not seemed to care until now.

The referendum votes were non-binding, which means the result was more philosophical than tangible. But symbolism is not meaningless, and voters were speaking their minds. That’s what elections are meant to do. That’s what democracy is.

The measures were backed by the conservative, anti-tax advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, and passed overwhelmingly: 90 percent in Wauconda and 91 percent in Fox River Grove.

The limitations of applying perpetual plebiscites for every tax change are obvious. Faced with expected demands on budgets, a government might simply grind to a halt waiting for the next property tax vote.

Remember this — the state doesn’t get any of your property taxes. It’s all local (counties, townships, municipalities, park and library districts), but most of it is used to finance the public schools. In Illinois, the median property tax is about $3,507 if your house costs $202,200.

We think local governments should measure that approval more often. We’re not suggesting approval must come in the form of a referendum held during an election, or a special election. But there should be some sort of extraordinary mechanism in place to facilitate greater transparency, and afford taxpayers an opportunity to have their voices heard in a meaningful way. That could be through special well-publicized public hearings and comment periods, or community surveys — something beyond a routine regular board meeting. It might illuminate how well government is explaining itself.

But Illinois officials, for the most part, have shown little enthusiasm for limiting their spending habits. Sometimes they forget it’s not their money to spend. As one Wauconda official noted, voters might not study proposed tax hikes thoroughly and vote “no” as a reflex.

There’s a tinge of “we know better than you” arrogance in that presumption. That view expressed by thousands of public officials breeds citizen resentment.

The money belongs to the taxpayers, not government.

As long as everyone remembers that, the handshake of democracy still works.

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