John Locke Update / Research Brief

Bonds, Booze, and the Beach: An Overview of Ballot Referendums

posted on in City & County Government, Local Government
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On November 7, people in cities and towns across North Carolina will go to the polls to vote in local government elections.  These are municipal, not county, elections, but not all cities and towns will have them.  If you’re not sure about the races where you live, you can see your ballot here.  Importantly, along with mayors, city council members, aldermen, and school board members, there will a number of referenda and bond issues on those ballots.  They basically fall into two categories.

Bonds

First, there are the bonds.  There are tree parks and recreation bonds, two transportation bonds, one greenway bond and one school bond.  The details of these bonds are different – they’re for particular projects and varying amounts – but here’s the really important similarity.  On every single one of these bond questions, the language reads,

Shall the order authorizing $X-million…and providing that additional taxes may be levied in an amount sufficient to pay the principal of and interest on said bonds, be approved? (emphasis added)

The bonds vary in size from $4 million to $922 million.  They cover projects from schools and community centers to overpasses and bicycle lanes.  But all of them would increase the debt municipalities have and, in some cases, require higher taxation for citizens.  Voters should consider very carefully whether they actually want to take on this kind of additional long-term debt.

I often feel like some local governments act a bit like a teenager with Daddy’s credit card.  It’s so very easy to spend, knowing that someone else – taxpayers, in the case of governments – will be left with the bill, usually long after the officeholder who made that decision has left.  And, of course, if you’re a smart kid, you spend all your pocket money on stuff you know your parents won’t buy for you.  You buy junk food and music and really trendy but expensive tennis shoes.  And then you go to your parents for stuff you actually need and that you’re pretty confident they won’t want you to go without, like a decent winter coat when yours no longer fits, or car insurance, or the college application fee.

Kids understand that if they spend their own money on practical stuff, then they won’t try to acquire frivolous things.  I wonder if it isn’t sometimes the same with governments.  Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is asking for $922 million in bonds.  That’s an enormous amount of money, and therefore will require an increase in taxes.  But I bet they’re pretty confident that people will vote for it because most people believe that children, good education, and well-equipped schools are vital.

What if, though, a kid asked for car insurance money and the response from her parents was, “I see you managed to pay for those new shoes last week and concert tickets the week before that.  I guess you made your choice.”  And what if that parent then also let the insurance lapse and took the keys until the child could pay the bill again?  Of course, it’s obvious.  The kid would learn pretty quickly that you have to take care of the essentials before you spend money on things that are less important.

I think voters should approach bonds in the same way.  If the local or state government can show that they really didn’t spend money on anything that wasn’t essential, then maybe it’s fair enough to come to voters and ask for more.  But if they’ve been spending money on public art, street festivals, and bicycle lanes or light rail lines that few use, then maybe voters would be better served by saying no to those bonds.  I suspect the signal to local officials would be pretty strong.  Spend what you already have wisely before you ask us to give you even more.

Alcoholic Beverage Sales

Most of the remaining referenda are about malt beverages, unfortified wine, or mixed beverages.  Again, all of these vary slightly.  Some would allow on-premises, i.e., bars and restaurants, sales.  Others would allow off-premises (retail stores) sales.  Some towns are voting just on one type of drink, while others are voting on beer and wine.  But as with the bonds, there’s a common thread running through all of these questions.  They are all referenda “to permit” the sale of these beverages.

Obviously, people have a wide variety of opinions about the ethics and wisdom of alcohol consumption.  But the language of these referenda is important.  If these referenda pass, they will simply “permit” businesses to sell alcohol.  They won’t require that anyone sell or consume alcohol, but they will increase the choices available to adults.

At the Locke Foundation, we believe that freedom is an essential principle.  When we look at referenda like these, then, we always consider whether they will make the people of North Carolina more or less free.  Allowing adults to sell and consume alcohol certainly does make them freer, and we, therefore, support these referenda.  Local governments should seek to increase and protect citizens’ freedom, not control their behavior.

Other

And then there’s one other referendum in Holden Beach that would revise the schedule on which the town’s commissioners are elected.  Currently, all five commissioners are elected every two years.  The referendum would change that to staggered four-year terms.  I don’t think it’s important either way, but on balance it seems to me that the change would probably be positive.  It would allow some continuity through elections, and it would increase the time that commissioners have to focus on governing in between election campaigns.

Turnout

Of course, the other really important thing to remember is that turnout at these municipal elections in odd-numbered years tends to be very low.  In 2015 and 2013, it was around 14%.  This means that your voice has even more impact than in a big presidential election.  Get out there and be heard!

Julie Tisdale is City and County Policy Analyst at the John Locke Foundation. Before coming to the Locke Foundation, she worked at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, India, where she wrote about various economic and public policy… ...

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