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Educators Help Defeat Tax-Limitation Measures

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Voters turned thumbs down on most of the major tax-limitation initiatives on state ballots last week, defying the generally conservative trend of an election that saw historic Republican gains at the federal and state levels.

Educators helped defeat ballot measures that would have required voter approval of new taxes in Missouri, Montana, and Oregon. Montana voters also rejected a proposal to require a two-thirds "supermajority" of the legislature to approve revenue increases.

In South Dakota, meanwhile, a property-tax cap lost narrowly.

Anti-tax groups were not shut out, however. Florida passed a constitutional amendment to limit state revenue increases according to personal-income growth, and a supermajority proposal attracted nearly 80 percent of the vote in Nevada.

Over all, though, the conservatism that voters demonstrated in choosing Congressional and state lawmakers did not translate into a major tax revolt on ballot issues. In a year when voters gave many veteran politicians the back of their hand, even measures designed to strip lawmakers of their tax-raising powers were defeated.

"It's pretty amazing," said Robert Stern, the co-director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles research group. "That's something I can't explain."

In Montana, for example, voters vetoed two tax-limit ballot initiatives while at the same time turning a 10-seat Democratic majority in the state Senate into a 12-seat Republican majority.

Cautious Voters

Forced to find rhyme, if not reason, in the voters' mixed messages, referendum experts noted the poor track record of ballot initiatives.

Six of the seven tax-limit measures under consideration this year were citizen initiatives put on the ballot through petition drives. Historically, such measures struggle at the polls.

From 1981 through 1992, only 44 percent of the 346 citizen initiatives put on state ballots passed, according to the Public Affairs Research Institute of New Jersey.

Voters generally approach ballot issues--both citizen and legislative referendums--warily and can be moved to a "no" vote by just a sliver of uncertainty, according to Mr. Stern.

Opponents of the tax-limit measures--including educator groups--recognized this Achilles' heel of ballot initiatives and spent thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars to sow doubt.

For example, opponents of Missouri's Amendment 7, a proposal combining required voter approval of tax increases with toughened spending caps, painted a doomsday budget scenario. State budget figures showed the amendment would lead to $1 billion to $5 billion in spending cuts, including drastic reductions in education funds, they said.

"Amendment 7 is a clear and present danger to the future of this state," Gov. Mel Carnahan told a pre-election rally of the Missouri National Education Association.

The campaign against Amendment 7 reportedly pledged to spend up to $2 million to deliver its message through radio and television ads and direct-mail literature.

Defusing Voter Anger

Voter anger might have blunted the impact of such appeals, argued Robert J. Quinn, the legislative director of the Missouri N.E.A., but the public concluded that the amendment essentially rolled back tax increases voters had already approved.

The amendment's rejection by 68 percent of voters "is clear evidence that [the amendment backers] overreached," Mr. Quinn said. "They were trying to take back things that had already been specifically approved by the people."

In South Dakota, Initiative One aimed to limit property taxes to 1 percent of a property's assessed value and limit property-tax increases to 1.25 percent. (See Education Week, 10/12/94.)

Opponents traveled around the state hosting forums with a poster-size copy of the ballot language as a centerpiece. The measure failed by two percentage points.

"It was a poorly drafted amendment," explained Julie Johnson, a business leader and the head of the anti-initiative group. "The more we could get people to sit down and read it, the more they could separate the hype from reality."

In Oregon, preliminary returns show that 58 percent of voters rejected a voter-approval measure after opponents waged a $750,000 campaign arguing that it was flawed and would force government to get ballot-box approval for such trivialities as photocopying fees.

Misinformation Campaigns?

Supporters of tax-limit measures argued that opponents smothered the initiatives in misinformation--but admitted that the negative attacks worked.

Television and radio ads against Montana's amendment, which would have required voter approval of new taxes, left the impression that the measure would actually increase taxes, said John L. Denson, the executive director of the state's United We Stand America chapter, which backed the measure.

"They just hit the TV and radio the last two weeks and really turned things around," he said.

Oregonians embraced the notion of voter approval of new taxes in local newspaper polls, but they were spooked in the voting booth by the awkward amendment language drafted by the state attorney general's office, according to Bill Sizemore, the president of Oregon Taxpayers United, which put the measure on the ballot.

"This measure was not defeated by the people," Mr. Sizemore contended. "It was defeated by the attorney general. It's just enough 'legalese' that people did not understand it."

Missouri educators simply lied about the amendment's dangers for schools, said U.S. Rep. Mel Hancock, a sponsor.

"There hasn't been much teaching going on in Missouri schools and universities since September," the Republican said. "All they've been doing is campaigning against Amendment 7."

The Ballot's Impact

In states where tax-limit measures passed, the outlook is mixed.

The Nevada constitutional amendment requiring tax increases to be approved by two-thirds of the legislature will not be enacted unless voters approve it a second time. Organized opposition to the measure was largely absent this year, but its second ballot test will be hotly contested, according to officials at the Nevada State Education Association.

In Florida, meanwhile, educators dodged what they considered the most serious threat to state school aid when a judge threw a voter-approval measure off the ballot earlier this year.

While the revenue cap that was approved will limit the growth of state spending, it exempts several key school funding sources, including property taxes and lottery revenues, according to the Florida Teaching Profession-N.E.A.

Educators and school groups were key players in other initiative campaigns as well:

  • Oregon school groups apparently lost their fight for a "Kids First" initiative that would have required the legislature to maintain K-12 spending at 1993-95 levels. Early returns indicated that 65 percent of voters opposed the measure.
  • the California state parent-teacher association helped defeat an initiative backed by the tobacco industry that would have relaxed laws curbing tobacco use and purchase by minors.
  • Constitutional amendments to prohibit teaching about homosexuality in schools were defeated in Oregon and Idaho. In Idaho, the initiative lost by only 3,000 of the 400,000 votes cast.
  • Term-limit measures that will affect state and local school boards passed in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and the District of Columbia.

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