How a referendum becomes a referendum


This Tuesday there are a gazillion referendum questions on ballots all across Wisconsin asking voters to impose huge tax increases upon themselves. These exorbitant referenda are preventing Wisconsin from making continued progress on taxes and keeping us relegated to being a Tax Hell.

On February 2, 2012, I wrote a blog that is especially timely going into Tuesday’s election, “How a referendum becomes a referendum.”

Feb. 2, 2012

In Wisconsin, a binding referendum is required for certain school district bonding measures. Franklin is poised to go to referendum. The only questions are when and how much.

A referendum’s genesis usually can be narrowed down to two sources:

1) Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria are all on the high school swim team.  Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria don’t like the school’s swimming pool. Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria also don’t like the condition of their locker rooms. Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria vent their frustrations to their parents. Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria all have parents who closely follow and support their daughters’ athletic endeavors.  They talk to other parents who don’t have kids on the swimming team, but do have kids involved in other sports or activities.  Over time, a consensus develops that school facilities need improvement or that completely new facilities are in order. A la the greasy wheel, they squeak long and loud enough to school officials before they ultimately agree to take their case to the taxpaying public to ask for lots and lots of money.

2) Just the opposite scenario of #1. School officials who have a strong in-bred desire to spend and spend profusely look around one day while attempting to come up with ideas on how to spend profusely.  One or more comment how this or that building hasn’t seen considerable maintenance since Eisenhower was President. To curry favor with parents and students alike, they begin to openly discuss the idea of building changes. To achieve greater acceptance, they call for public input. Supporters smile, nod their heads in approval and start dreaming.

School Board members, school administrators, and school employees, I’m sure, are pretty nice people for the most part. As a group, they are well-intentioned. However, something happens to these supposedly well-educated folks every day within the confines of those school buildings. Maybe it’s in the water, but they tend to shed common sense and any financial acumen, rendering them helpless when it comes to complex or even simple decision-making.

I described it this way in a blog last May referring to a topic Mark Belling discussed on one of his radio programs:

He addressed a school board issue in Menomonee Falls (MF). By coincidence, MF has about the same population as Franklin and like Franklin is immensely conservative. In MF, the voting patterns are overwhelmingly Republican. As Mark put it, the last place you’d expect victories by the teacher’s union with public officials thumbing their noses at the will of the people would be MF. I would add you could toss in Franklin, except that the Franklin School Board is beyond out of touch.

Mark mentioned that in some communities, especially smaller ones like MF (and I might add, Franklin) with 30-35,000 population, the teachers are often pals with the school board. They bump into one another and see each other in the community, at church, at youth school sports. They become buddies.

When a school board member’s “friend,” aka teacher asks for help, the school board member, rather than upset a “friend” and stand up for the electorate, instead caves.

Another factor needs to be considered.

Folks run for office with the best intentions. They are going to strive for fiscal responsibility. They will not be beholden to special interests. They will represent the taxpayers.

Then they get elected and rub elbows with the entrenched administration. They go native, welcomed into their new family, going from “one of us” to “one of them.” Prior to the election, they were outsiders. Now they’re insiders.

That’s a formula for an easy path to spending measures like referenda. Under this scenario, it’s easy to understand why school boards love to place referenda on the ballot.

Working incrementally, referendum supporters take steps to a “YES” vote that include sending out surveys. This is a clever move designed to persuade members of the public into actually choosing their own property tax increase. You tell us what you want done. We’ll then send you the bill.

Hoping taxpayers won’t see through this charade, school officials distribute questionnaires in an effort to come across looking as though they really care about what you have to say and about communications between taxpayers and the district. In reality, it’s a ploy to gather all sorts of ideas and suggestions they can have on record to point to with the claim that this is what the public wants, and goodness gracious, that’s going to cost big bucks. But hey, we asked and we listened.

The next step goes, not for the jugular, but for the heart. After all, it’s for the children.

An emotional plea demonstrating the deterioration of the infrastructure and the impact it has on our students must be hammered home to those who will ultimately surrender the cash and pay the bills. How do they do it? They develop sob stories and potential photo ops illuminating their case. Then they find a sympathetic lapdog reporter who won’t ask any tough questions to assist in the handwringing with a puff piece the school district could have easily just written itself.

Eventually, a referendum question is approved by the school board with a specific (and large) price tag. An election date is chosen that doesn’t necessarily fall on a traditional Election Day. Back in the 90’s, a Franklin school referendum was actually put to voters during the summertime. The intent was to crank out more school machine votes than others who might not have been aware of the election, card, or were too busy enjoying summer or on vacation.

Once a referendum is scheduled, supporters employed by the school district become full-blown advocates.

Teachers talk about the referendum to students openly during class. They’re not supposed to. They do anyway.

Teachers send pro-referendum literature home with students. They’re not supposed to. They do anyway.

During the last Franklin referenda debate, students, many of whom were of voting age, were taken to an assembly where the referenda were discussed. School officials, later embarrassed, weren’t supposed to conduct such an assembly. They did it anyway.

Referendum supporters will say just about anything in order to get the measure passed. Franklin residents were warned that students would be forced to go to school in trailers if the last referenda failed. In Racine, threats were issued that all school athletic programs would be cut.

It’s scary. It’s hyperbole. It’s lying.

The premise behind a typical referendum is that dreadful consequences will follow if bonding is rejected. Thus, the taxpayer self-inflicted property tax increase is desperately needed to avoid pitfalls the district will never recover from. Vote no and you’ll develop a perpetual case of the guilts.

A more accurate assessment comes from comments left on one of my blogs last July:

  1. From history in this community, there’s always a group that “wants” something while their children are in line to take advantage of it. A new high school while their kids are in late grade school. A theatre (snooty spelling) when their kids are taking drama. A baseball clinic when their kids are in league softball, a pool when they’re on swim team.

    But the minute their kids move on to something else, well, then it’s a different story. Then they don’t want to spend a nickel.

    The other constant is that these groups always want to use OPM. OTHER PEOPLES MONEY. More specifically, they want the city to tax for it, or, probably in the latest group’s plans, to take impact fee money (It’s not tax dollars.)

  2. lets also have taxpayers pay for a theater for those who want their to have their kids participate in dance, theater and music. An arena for indoor hockey and speed skating. An Olympic pool and water park and a large community center for our seniors. Lets also put out there a facility like the Midwest Express Center for Northwestern Mutual, the Wheaton Franciscan Hospital and other business to have conventions at and to draw more business to Franklin.

    I know the parents of my daughters dance class are getting tired of paying for a facility for the dance recitals. This would keep all the kids off the streets and off of drugs.

OPM. Spending Other People’s Money. It’s oh so easy to do.

So that’s how a referendum becomes a referendum and what can happen once the referendum gets the approval to go to voters.

5 thoughts on “How a referendum becomes a referendum

  1. Pingback: My Most Popular Blogs (04/04/16) | This Just In… From Franklin, WI

  2. Pingback: So Kev, tell me once again…how does a referendum become a referendum? | This Just In… From Franklin, WI

  3. Pingback: My Most Popular Blogs (10/24/16) | This Just In… From Franklin, WI

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