Punting the tough issues to the people

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2011 - 4:42 PM

Is there such a thing as too much direct democracy? Ask California. Ask schools.

From Athens to Arden Hills, one fightin' word resounded last week -- referendum.

The Greek prime minister's call for his people to vote on the latest bitter pills that his eurozone counterparts want the debt-afflicted nation to swallow provoked economic tremors felt around the world and a political crisis at home.

By week's end, George Papandreou was furiously backpedaling as his hold on his government and his party was slipping.

Even in the cradle of democracy, it seems, there's considerable question about the merits of letting the people decide.

Shift from the shores of the Aegean to the upper Mississippi. The mere threat of a referendum requirement scuttled (at least for now) the fond dreams of the owners of the Minnesota Vikings to build a massive stadium-plus-who-knows-what development in Arden Hills.

The Arden Hills scheme had depended on Ramsey County's willingness to sock its shoppers with a higher sales tax. That in turn depended on the Legislature's willingness to overlook a state law that says local option sales taxes must be approved by referendum.

That will is lacking, Gov. Mark Dayton announced Tuesday.

Capitol wisdom maintains that a stadium tax referendum has no chance to succeed. Purple Pride may color many Minnesota hearts, but the tinge seldom extends to the pocketbook.

Both in Athens and St. Paul, politicians appeared to be invoking referenda to avoid making politically difficult decisions. That's always struck me as odd behavior by people who go to great lengths to win jobs whose duties boil down to making politically difficult decisions.

Next week looks to be Referendum Week II in Minnesota. On Tuesday, voters in 125 of the state's 337 school districts will go to the polls to answer money questions posed to them by their local school boards.

In 113 of those districts, the question isn't about fancy new buildings or extracurricular frills. The question is about operating funds -- teachers, books, utilities. In 58 of the 113, the question isn't even about increasing property taxes. It's about continuing existing levies that are nearing the end of their previously authorized life spans -- in most cases, 10 years.

This isn't a case of duly elected school board members being unwilling to do their duty. Most board members I know would gladly shoulder the responsibility for setting school levies.

This is a case of legislators running amok with their desire to dodge blame for higher taxes.

State law does not compel any other local government jurisdiction to run back to the voters the way that schools must when they decide (as nearly all districts have) to supplement the lean portion they receive from the state.

Only school boards cannot decide this for themselves -- evidently, lest a choice to raise property taxes would come back to bite the legislators who vow to treat schools with favor, but lately have been sending them IOUs instead.

The upshot: Minnesota voters who crave a property tax cut get one periodic chance to vote themselves one -- and it comes at the expense of the state's most crucial economic asset, its brainpower.

It's hard to imagine that legislators would set out to put school budgets at regular risk in this way.

Truth is, they didn't. This policy has evolved by tweaks and stumbles over 40 years. Thoughtful legislators -- even some tax-averse Republicans -- are troubled by it.

Senate Education chair Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, says she would prefer a simpler school funding system "that gives the school boards proper authority to make those decisions."

But my guess is that more members of the GOP majorities would agree with House Education Finance chair Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. He thinks more people should vote on school budgets.

He announced last week that he'll sponsor a requirement that school boards conduct levy referenda in even-numbered election years, when turnout is larger. Larger turnout would likely translate into more no votes for school taxes.

To Garofalo and other referendum-loving legislators, I'd recommend a sobering 2010 book: "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It." Authors Joe Mathews and Mark Paul make a strong case that there's such a thing as too much direct democracy.

I'd guess that right now, fellows named Papandreou and Wilf would agree with them. After Tuesday's election, people who value Minnesota schools might, too.

* * *

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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