Failed Referendums Pass Problems Back to Legislators

By Lonnie Harp — November 11, 1992 5 min read
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The message of last week’s school-related state referendums is less that voters want education spending to go either up or down than that they are looking to their elected representatives to make the tough decisions, analysts suggest.

Voters in Illinois nudged the legislature to raise school spending, but fell shy of the supermajority necessary to write such a mandate into the constitution. In Michigan, poll results showed that most voters were uncomfortable in ordering a massive property-tax rollback.

In both states, observers said, voters clearly were throwing the thorny issues back to lawmakers, not tossing them out.

Colorado voters, meanwhile, declined to approve either a complex school-voucher proposal or a sales-tax hike proposed in the wake of the legislature’s consistent failure to resolve school-funding problems.

Despite the defeat of the Illinois proposal, a unique constitutional amendment aimed at strengthening the state’s mandate for funding public schools, both supporters and opponents predicted that the results were convincing enough to jolt state lawmakers into action.

Debate over the proposal had pitted the state’s top education organizations against opponents led by business groups. (See Education Week, Oct. 14, 1992.)

The vote for the proposal fell short of the required 60 percent majority, with unofficial results showing 57 percent support.

“I am extremely disappointed, but almost six out of every 10 people sent a clear message to the Governor and General Assembly that we’ve got a problem that needs to be fixed,’' said Superintendent of Education Robert Leininger, who led the amendment proponents.

Thom M. Serafin, a Chicago media consultant who managed the opposition campaign, said voters have become skeptical that referendums and ballot measures are the best way to fix complex problems.

“This happened before with the Illinois lottery,’' he noted. “It was marketed as ending all the problems education had and all the money would go right to education, but it took 10 years before it ever did and even then it was a small amount of cash.’'

But more than to fear of a lottery replay, campaign supporters said, the measure’s defeat was due to its disappointing performance in southern Illinois, where many voters worried that tax increases would be funneled to Chicago.

Opponents of the measure argued that the solution to school-finance inequalities was already within lawmakers’ authority. Officials were using the amendment to force a crisis to which they would have to respond, critics said.

“This wasn’t perceived as a referendum on education,’' noted Mr. Serafin.

‘Cut and Cap’ Rejected

In Michigan, a drastic property-tax-limitation measure was rejected by a 59 percent majority. There too, observers said voters were eager for lawmakers to tackle the state’s tax and school-finance problems.

“This should send a resounding message that people want change, and that people want action,’' said Thomas E. White, the director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards. “People did not go for the proponents’ arguments that it was better to throw the state into a crisis and hope something better would arise from the ashes.’'

The “cut and cap’’ plan would have reduced property-tax assessments by 30 percent and limited their future growth.

In addition to defeating the proposal, Michigan voters turned control of the state House over to Republicans, giving them full power over both the legislature and the Governor’s office.

School officials viewed the turnover as an effort by voters to end the legislative gridlock that has left many of the state’s school-funding issues and budget debates unresolved.

“If the Republicans want to hold on, they are going to have to get things done,’' said Mr. White.

Unambiguous Anti-Tax Message

If the Illinois and Michigan votes were seen as backhanded encouragement for lawmakers to act, the lopsided defeat of a South Dakota funding plan was an unambiguous anti-tax message.

The plan tied a reduction in sales and property taxes to new income taxes, in an effort to shift a greater part of the school-finance burden to the state.

The proposal, which was strongly backed by the South Dakota Education Association, drew only 26 percent of the vote.

Observers said that in addition to a general resistance to an income tax, South Dakota voters were unconvinced that the ballot measure could make good on its promises.

“This election doesn’t answer any questions about the need for property-tax relief or education funding, it was simply that people don’t want an income tax,’' said Deb Mortenson, a spokeswoman for the Taxpayers Saying No to Higher Taxes, which opposed the measure.

Voters in Connecticut and Florida demonstrated support for tax limits, while those in Idaho and Oregon voted against property-tax ceilings.

In other elections that affected school funding, voters in Mississippi, Nebraska, and Georgia approved referendums authorizing state lotteries.

The Georgia lottery measure passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Peach State voters resoundingly approved, however, a proposal to require elected school boards and appointed superintendents in local districts, giving the measure 68 percent support. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1992.)

Other Measures

In other education-related measures, Oregon voters by a comfortable margin rejected a ballot measure that would have required the public schools and other government entities to actively discourage homosexuality. But Colorado voters approved a ballot question to bar preferential treatment of homosexuals as a minority group.

Kentucky voters approved a constitutional amendment that will allow the governor to seek re-election beginning in 1999.

The Kentucky measure also abolishes the office of state superintendent of public instruction after 1995. Under the state’s 1990 school-reform law, the post was stripped of nearly all of its responsibilities, which were given to an appointed commissioner.

Voters in California passed a $900 million school-construction bond issue, the second such measure approved this year. The proposition won with 52 percent of the vote.

School-bond measures were also passed last week in Virginia, where a $472 million building program was authorized, and New Mexico, which plans a $77 million capital-improvement effort.

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Failed Referendums Pass Problems Back to Legislators


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