With more than half of McLean County’s registered voters living within Unit 5 boundaries, it makes the school district the big kahuna in the upcoming countywide referendum on whether sales tax rates should be increased to fund schools.

So Unit 5’s pledge on Friday to use about a third of the sales tax money it would receive in the first five years to effectively shift debt service away from property tax and lower property tax rates was a public relations masterstroke in content and timing.

More importantly, it was a wise policy decision that will result in many more Unit 5 residents supporting the higher sales tax, and might just carry the day March 18.

What’s being proposed is a 1 percent increase in sales taxes (from 7.75 to 8.75 percent in Bloomington-Normal, for instance). The approximately $17.6 million in new revenue generated each year would be distributed on a per-student basis to all of the county’s public schools -- about $700 per student.

For instance, Tri-Valley, with 4 percent of the county’s public school students, would receive 4 percent of the new money; Unit 5, with 54 percent of the county’s public school students, would get 54 percent. It can be used only for school facilities: to maintain, improve or build new facilities; save for future building needs; and/or pay down debt for existing facilities. Individual districts’ school boards would decide.

Unit 5 isn’t the only district promising to use the new revenue to pay off existing debt. District 87, for instance, has said it “will use a portion of the sales tax revenue to lower/abate (the) bond and interest tax rate.”

That language, though weaker than Unit 5’s promise to use $3 million a year “for at least five years,” gives District 87 more wiggle room but its taxpayers less confidence pressure will be taken off their property taxes. It does partially address opponents’ concern the referendum doesn’t guarantee property tax relief.

Supporters might wish for better timing, knowing Bloomington is considering a higher utility tax, a new amusement tax and not letting a quarter-percent Coliseum-related sales tax expire as scheduled next year, that Normal has raised its property tax rate and is eyeing a sewer rate hike, and the future of the temporary state income tax increase is hanging fire in Springfield.

Our lawmakers in Springfield have been providing far less school funding than promised. A county sales tax for school facilities will broaden the tax base. Because the new tax would not apply to essentials like groceries and medicines, its impact on lower-income households is diminished. And what’s not to like about the fact that more than a third of sales tax dollars collected in McLean County come from people who live outside the county?

Frankly, I’d been happier if Unit 5 would declare an intention to use even more of every year’s sales tax receipts to pay off debt on an accelerated basis, saving many millions in interest over the long term. But even this plan to use much of the new revenue to shift part of the burden from property taxes for five years should be enough to win a “yes” vote.

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