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Taxpayers' beef is with Legislature, not school board

The room is packed wall-to-wall with people whose facial muscles are tense, their eyes glaring and their lips turned down; when they talk, their fingers jab like knives through the air — these are the telltale signs of a property tax-hike hearing, one of the few times regular people show up for a local government meeting.

The only way it could be more frightening to an elected official is if people didn't have to turn in their pitchforks and torches at the door.

I've seen a lot of these over more than 25 years in this business. If parents could figure out a way to make themselves loom as large in the minds of teenage children as these angry hordes do in the minds of elected officials, they wouldn't miss a night's sleep again wondering what was going on.

A report by the independent Utah Foundation last year showed that property taxes have remained about the same here in relation to income since the mid-1990s, thanks to the law that requires such spectacles. If any local government even thinks about raising taxes, here they come.

Which makes what the new Jordan District has tried to do so astounding. Board members didn't just ask to add more money, they wanted to increase taxes by 40 percent. They might as well have donned Osama bin Laden masks and painted targets on their chests.

People hate taxes, but they loathe property taxes. The thought that a government can force you to pay at the threat of losing your home strikes at the heart of security and freedom, even if no one can remember when such a thing last happened to a homeowner along the Wasatch Front.

But this hearing, which filled up the night and spilled into the early hours of the morning, had another underlying current — a feeling of helplessness against a tsunami of forces beyond the control of anyone there.

Board members must have felt it. They wouldn't have been taking the abuse if state lawmakers hadn't passed a law that put into motion a split of the Jordan District, leaving it to deal with tremendous west-side growth but with fewer resources.

The crowd felt it. The state law didn't allow them to vote on the split, it just gave them the bill. Even a follow-up "equalization" law requiring other districts to give money to the new, smaller district didn't offset the costs. It didn't help that the Canyons District — the people who left — announced earlier in the week that it wasn't going to have to raise property taxes on its residents at all.

But there was an extra bit of helplessness at this hearing. It came amid discussions in far-away Washington of a health-care reform package. Obama administration officials have begun to hint that even the middle class may soon have to face a tax increase.

It came at a time when jobs are uncertain; when every extra dollar sucked from the economy by a government is like removing another cup of fuel from the engines of recovery. Every government wants its share without thinking of how together they add up to disaster.

I could cite statistics showing it really isn't so bad. The same Utah Foundation report I referenced earlier found that Utahns paid much more in property taxes, related to their incomes, in the 1960s than they do today. I could cite income tax schedules from the '60s, in which anyone earning more than $100,000 had to pay 70 percent; or from the '50s when anyone making over $150,000 paid 90 percent.

But just because we're starting from a lower base today doesn't mean tax hikes are any better. Nor does it take away from the fact that the real people responsible for this week's hearing — state lawmakers — never had to face the glare of the angry mob.

Yes, people will be equally angry if resources shrink and class sizes rise, but 40 percent all at once is too much, and at the wrong time. Find another way, and send the pitchforks and torches to the state Capitol instead.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com. Visit his blog at deseretnews.com/blogs.