Budget Pressures Resulted in Increased Resort to Ballot Propositions on Election Day

in NEWS FROM THE ACCESS NETWORK

With school funding initiatives on a number of state ballots, investing in public education became a major political issue in many parts of the country this year. Voters approved propositions to raise state sales taxes and to repurpose surplus revenues towards education. They approved a greater percentage of school district budgets, and they rejected a change to a state finance system that would have made it more difficult to raise taxes. In other states, however, voters rejected propositions to raise taxes.

Seeing the effects of severe budget cuts in the increased class sizes, shrinking academic offerings, and general decline of K-12 education programs, Californians approved a tax increase that will help restore quality education in their state. Similar propositions failed in other states, but the ballot measures in general suggest a growing acknowledgement that improving education requires making schools a fiscal priority. Meeting with his education board the day after the election, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon responded to calls for smaller class sizes and the restoration of school services by saying that with its current budget, there is only so much the government can do; At some point, he said, Oregonians “are going to have to go to the polls and actually vote for some revenue.”

Voters in a large number of counties agreed to do just that, as evidenced by the number of local tax initiatives that passed on Election Day. In California, local tax and bond measures, whose revenues will help fund schools, had a 70% approval rate. And even in states that are typically more fiscally conservative, people voted to raise taxes. In Baldwin County, Alabama, for example, a measure to renew a 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax passed by a two-thirds margin. The tax renewal means the school superintendent will not have to follow through with his doomsday plan to shut down schools and cut hundreds of staff and programs. Ohio voters also approved 55% of tax increases to provide more funds for schools, an improvement from last year’s rate.

Below is a summary of some of the state ballot items related to funding for education.

Arizona

Arizona voters failed to make permanent a sales tax increase of $0.01 that is set to expire in 2013. The proposition would have provided at least $626 million for K-12 education, and would have established a funding level for public education that legislators could not dip beneath. Schools are expecting to see class sizes increase and programs shrink or disappear if the lost revenue results in smaller school budgets in the upcoming year. While the failure to approve the sales tax measure alarmed educators and citizens, some advocates are hopeful it will serve as a “wake-up call” for lawmakers and force them to develop a better education funding system.

California

Governor Jerry Brown’s major education funding proposition passed in California, protecting the state’s K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities’ from severe budget cuts. By increasing income taxes on those earning more than $250,000, and temporarily increasing the state sales tax by a quarter of a cent, the measure is expected to generate more than $6 billion annually. Of that revenue, roughly $2.9 billion will go to public education in the first year. Voters defeated a rival proposition that would have increased funds for education by raising state income taxes for all Californians.

A week after the election, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted to cancel ten unpaid furlough days for employees, restoring a full 180-day school year for the first time since 2008.

Had the proposition not passed, the district planned to cut $255 million from this year’s budget, and $650 million from the following year’s. Superintendent John Deasy saw the proposition’s success as proof that “voters were very aware what the cuts would have meant to our schools.” He said that voters “literally saved us from an educational calamity.”

Florida

A proposition to change the way the state calculates its revenue limit did not pass in Florida. The measure would have limited the legislature’s ability to fund education and other services in tough economic times.

Michigan

Voters rejected a ballot measure that would have limited the state’s ability to raise revenues. If the proposal had passed, raising taxes would have required either a two-thirds majority in the house and senate, or a statewide popular vote.

Missouri

Voters rejected a ballot measure to raise revenues for education through an increase in the state’s tax on tobacco products. It would have added $282 million to $423 million annually, and half of that amount would have gone to K-12 education. The state’s tobacco tax remains the lowest in the country.

Oregon

Voters partially overturned a unique state law that has forced the government to issue corporate refunds when tax collections exceed revenue projections by 2% or more. The ballot measure approved on Election Day will redirect the amount of the refunds, which has averaged $120 million every two years, to a special fund for public schools.

South Dakota

A proposal to increase the state sales tax by one-cent was voted down. The additional revenue, expected to be about $180 million, would have gone to public education and Medicaid reimbursements. The sales tax would have raised the per pupil funds by approximately $720 a year.

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