MILWAUKEE – Wisconsin’s second largest newspaper has joined the state’s largest newspaper in roundly criticizing a plan by two conservative lawmakers that would require school districts to get more public input before deciding to spend more taxpayer money.
Chris Rickert of the Wisconsin State Journal on Sunday opined in a column that state Rep. Michael Schraa (R) is working “to shield freedom-loving Wisconsinites from themselves.”
Rickert’s criticism of Schraa follows the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s November criticism of state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R) for his role as the Senate sponsor of the plan.
As it now stands, in Wisconsin if a school district wants to increase spending for a special project it must get the approval of district voters via a referendum. Some school districts schedule referendums for low turnout elections, and in some districts where referendums fail to pass, school boards continue putting the same issue on successive ballots until the plan eventually passes – usually in a low turnout election. Schraa and Stroebel want to end this practice of repeat referendums and they want to require that referendums be held in higher turnout elections.
“[I]t really burns (and puzzles) me to see Republicans trying to curtail Wisconsinites’ ability to vote on what we want from our government and how much we want to pay for it,” Rickert writes in the State Journal. “The irony in the Schraa-Stroebel bill is that it comes from a party that puts a premium on the right of citizens to make decisions in their own best interest, with little to any government interference.”
But Rickert – like his counterpart at the Journal Sentinel on this issue, Ernst-Ulrich Franzen – misstates the situation to make it appear as if conservatives are somehow waging war on limited government.
The central tenet of Rickert’s and Franzen’s criticism of the reform is the belief that school referendums, scheduled by a local government, are somehow an exercise in limited government when, in reality, every school board referendum is a matter of government asking taxpayers for more money.
Rickert concludes that:
“If the Republicans now in control of state government see more to gain in anti-referendum political posturing than in standing up for personal responsibility, the measure has a pretty good shot at becoming law — and the GOP could find itself in the counterintuitive position of having struck a small blow for the nanny state.”
But Rickert never admits in his column that school boards quite regularly take it upon themselves to campaign and lobby district voters in support of their spending plans. Government campaigning on behalf of more government is hardly limited government.
Take for instance, the Racine Unified School District’s not-so-subtle efforts to persuade parents (voters) of school children earlier this year to reject an advisory referendum on a new school district. Two villages that are part of Racine Unified placed an advisory – nonbinding – question on the April 2015 ballot asking voters if their villages should split from Racine Unified and form their own school districts. Although the matter didn’t directly relate to bonding and taxes like a binding school budget or capital project referendum, Racine Unified used its own resources to distribute flyers warning voters of the dangers of leaving RUSD and forming a new district.
Every time defenders of the status quo criticize the Schraa-Stroebel plan, they refuse to admit that the plan would actually require school districts to get input from more voters before proceeding with a plan that would raise taxes for everyone in the district. Oddly, columnists now profess to believe that the possibility of fewer voters being involved in the referendum process is limited government.
Another point critics of referendum reform miss is just how much money the state gives local school districts. Property tax policy is controlled at the state level even though the taxes go to support local government – including schools – and a sizable amount of school funding comes directly from the state. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction:
“Public schools in Wisconsin are funded with a combination of revenues including various state and federal education aids. State aids represent approximately 45% of school funding and federal aids represent approximately 8% of school funding in Wisconsin.”
There is nothing unusual about the state proposing to define when and how referendums are held in local school districts. In fact, those districts already have to abide by state law regulating the referendum process.
Columnists covering this debate may think they are clever to suggest that reform of school district referendums is really a big government concept or a nanny state intervention, but to reach those conclusions they must ignore the facts.