State lawmakers amend ballot language statute

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

The Illinois House of Representatives has voted to amend the law that governs how ballots should be written when taxing bodies seek a tax hike referendum. The move comes in response to the controversy that began in Oak Park where it was discovered that school districts' ballots understated the impact tax increases would have on voters.

The House unanimously approved amending a section of the state's election code on April 15. Oak Park state Sen. Don Harmon is a sponsor of the Senate version. The amended law now requires that the state equalizer be used in calculating the impact a tax increase will have on property owners. Oak Park Elementary School District 97, as well as nearly a dozen other taxing bodies with referendums on the April 5 ballot, sought tax increases that didn't factor the equalizer into their ballot wording. Not doing so, critics argued, understated the true impact of those tax increases on property owners — in the case of D97, by a factor of three.

The district, and a few other taxing agencies, won their tax hikes in the April 5 election. Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar was among those arguing that the equalizer should never have been ignored in the first place when writing those ballots.

Subsequently, an anti-tax group based in Illinois has joined with an Oak Park resident to file a lawsuit against D97 over the ballot wording, arguing it was misleading. The district's referendum was approved by voters 55-45 percent.

Noel Kuriakos, an opponent of D97's tax increase and a plaintiff in the suit against the school district filed by Taxpayers United of America, called the House's vote a "vindication."

"The bill would require that all future ballot referendums contain calculations using the state equalization factor, known as the multiplier, rather than just a property's assessed valuation," he wrote in a statement last week. "The referendum language used on the April 5 property-tax increase referendums understated the actual amount of the tax increase that property owners would face if the referendums passed. ... We expect the bill to pass the Senate and to be signed by Gov. Quinn."

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