Education Funding

Voters Reject Proposed Limits on Spending

By Linda Jacobson — November 10, 2006 6 min read

Even though voters rejected a number of statewide measures to boost school funding last week, they showed that they don’t want policymakers to be tied down by strict budget formulas that could affect spending on education.

All three Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, initiatives—in Maine, Nebraska and Oregon—were defeated. A cap on state and local spending, such measures are an effort to limit tax increases. But opponents say the constitutional amendments negatively affect education. Last year, voters in Colorado agreed to suspend for five years a TABOR that was approved in 1992.

“There is a growing intolerance toward gimmicks,” said Kristina Wilfore, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a Washington-based organization that opposes politically conservative ballot initiatives. “People have a different set of ideas around government. They want solutions to things that they know impact their lives.”

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In Colorado, voters rejected two “65 percent solution” measures on the Nov. 7 ballot. Such policies have been widely promoted, particularly by conservatives, as a way to cut administrative costs and direct more resources into the classroom. (“Group’s ‘65 Percent Solution’ Gains Traction, GOP Friends,” Oct. 12, 2005.)

One of last week’s proposals was sponsored by the Colorado affiliate of First Class Education, a group chaired by Patrick M. Burke, the president of the Overstock.com shopping Web site, who has been advocating the 65 percent idea around the country.

A separate, similar measure, sponsored by members of the Colorado legislature, was also defeated. Election analysts had predicted that voters likely would be confused by having such similar proposals on the ballot, and would probably reject both.

Californians, meanwhile, approved a $43 billion bond issue—Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “strategic growth plan”—that includes $10.4 billion to relieve school overcrowding, build charter schools, improve earthquake safety at schools, and build more vocational education facilities.

Prominent education groups hailed the defeats of the TABOR proposals and the 65 percent initiatives.

“TABOR may sound appealing at first, but it doesn’t solve any problems,” Edward J. McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “It just creates new ones, such as overcrowded schools, soaring college tuitions, crumbling roads, and shortages in emergency response and health-care services.”

And he said that the results in Colorado are “evidence that the 65 percent mandate is dying a well-deserved death across the nation after facing near-universal condemnation from policymakers, education groups, editorial boards, and individuals across the political spectrum.”

Frugal or Expansive?

Tim Mooney, a spokesman for First Class Education, based in Washington, conceded that “it was not a good night for those of us who are mindful of the taxpayers’ dollars,” but added that the national organization didn’t put any money toward the Colorado campaign.

He predicted, however, that instead of fizzling, the 65 percent solution would pick up steam. “The fight for frugality will continue,” he said, citing support for the concept from Gov.-elect Charlie Crist of Florida, a Republican.

Click to view interactive feature: Proposals to the Voters
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At the same time, an analysis of national election results released by the nonpartisan Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, described voters as being “in a fiscally expansive mood.”

Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican who was re-elected last week, said he was “over the moon” about the election that brought approval of his state’s bond measure.

Chris R. Edwards, an economist at the Cato Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank in Washington, said the stronger economy likely contributed to the voters’ willingness to approve some spending initiatives. But, he added, “bonds are just deferred taxes that people will have to pay in the future.”

Some initiatives, such as TABOR proposals, he said, have become awkwardly worded and hard for voters to understand. He said that supporters of such measures would now need to “regroup” before launching more campaigns.

Spending Defeats

Unlike the outcome in California, voters in other states didn’t give wholesale approval to education spending proposals.

In Idaho, voters rejected a 1-cent sales-tax increase, which would have pushed the state tax up to 6 cents. The additional revenue would have created an Idaho Local Public Investment Fund, to be used for classroom materials and supplies, teacher recruitment, and class-size reduction.

In Ohio, voters turned down a plan to allow the state to permit up to 31,500 slot machines at seven horse-racing tracks and two nontrack locations in Cleveland. The “Earn and Learn” amendment to the state constitution would have supported college scholarships and grants for students.

Voters also rejected gambling as a source of school aid in Nebraska, where the unsuccessful proposal would have allowed the proceeds of video “keno” gaming devices to be spent on K-12 education.

In California, even though the infrastructure bond issue passed, voters said no to a proposition that would have provided additional K-12 funding through a $50 real estate tax. Opponents of Proposition 88 had said it likely would create new levels of bureaucracy and open the door to new property taxes to pay for ballot initiatives.

And in Michigan, voters rebuffed Proposal 5, which sought to protect state precollegiate and higher education budgets by setting minimum funding levels. The measure would have generated an estimated additional $565 million a year for education and would have required the state to provide annual funding increases equal to the rate of inflation. But opponents, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who was re-elected last week, had argued that the plan would lead to cuts in other departments of state government.

Also in Michigan, voters approved a plan to ban affirmative action programs.

Early-Childhood Wins

The two statewide early-childhood initiatives—a tobacco tax in Arizona for child-development programs and a new early-childhood endowment fund in Nebraska for infants and toddlers—were both successful.

In Arizona, smokers will now pay an additional 80-cent tax on cigarettes to fund the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Initiative, which will raise about $150 million a year for local and regional services for preschool-age children, such as child-development information for parents and grants to providers to improve preschool quality.

In Nebraska, the new fund directs $40 million in state education money to services for at-risk infants and toddlers. The amendment also requires an additional $20 million in private matching funds.

Proponents of early-childhood education said both victories show that the movement to expand services for young children is not waning.

“It’s important for both governors and legislators to take note that a majority of the electorate in two different Republican states acknowledged that young children’s early education should be a priority for their state’s leaders,” Libby Doggett, the executive director of Pre-K Now, an advocacy organization based in Washington, said in a statement.

But Darcy Olsen, the president of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank, said voters were “unlikely to see the promised benefits” of the tax.

She also predicted that the measure could wind up in court, for two reasons. First, it might violate a 2004 Arizona law that prohibits initiatives from draining state general funds, Ms. Olsen said, and second, the official ballot language contained a typographical error. Instead of an added 80-cent tax on cigarettes, the sponsors actually wrote “.80 cents”—or less than a penny a pack.

While both supporters and opponents of the measure agree that the measure calls for 80 cents, bringing the per-pack tax to $1.98, the technicality could lead to a future legal challenge.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Voters Reject Proposed Limits on Spending

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