DFLers hope to capitalize on the issue in ’12 elections
Steve Drazkowski likely winced a bit when the results of the state’s school referendums rolled in last Wednesday.
The Republican House member from Mazeppa made a big splash late this summer when he spoke out against a slew of school referendums in his legislative district, which sought to renew existing levies, and, in some cases, establish new ones. He stood alongside House Education Finance Chairman Pat Garofalo at a November news conference in which Garofalo said school referendums in low-turnout years are “not good for democracy.” Drazkowski also went to war with local papers to defend a per-pupil funding increase passed in the Republican budget this spring. “It’s time for school boards to recognize this windfall and leave the local property taxpayers alone,” he wrote in an email to constituents in August.
But despite some Republican opposition, voters in more than 100 school districts across Minnesota on Tuesday approved about 80 percent of school referendums on the ballot — the most sought and the most approved in more than a decade. Most of the approvals renewed existing levies that were set to expire, but a surprising number of new levies tied to construction projects or classroom funding were also approved.
In Thief River Falls, voters renewed two existing levies and approved a $54 million construction project that will pay for improvements to four district buildings. In Anoka-Hennepin — the state’s largest school district — voters renewed an existing levy and passed a tax increase tied to technology improvements, but they voted down a larger tax increase for general operating dollars. There were some surprise rejections, too. Duluth voters shut down all three proposed school levies seeking separate tax increases.
“It certainly looked like a majority of them passed, some of them decisively with very strong margins,” Drazkowski said on Thursday. “Others weren’t quite as strong. The voters spoke and acted with the information that they had.
“What we have to do is look at the rhetoric. Some of the rhetoric coming out of the school organizations is things like, ‘We have less funding than we’ve had before’… the truth is we’ve had steady increases in education funding on a per-pupil basis over the last 10 years.”
The issue will continue to be a political lightning rod looking at the 2012 session and beyond. DFLers have already trumpeted the results, saying schools chose to raise their own taxes to fight a GOP budget fix that extended the K-12 school shift. “In the absence of education leadership from Republicans at the Legislature, voters stepped up to the plate yesterday to give our schools and students a vote of confidence,” DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said in a statement, adding the successes were even more impressive given “the unprecedented attempt by several Republican legislators to defeat them.”
DFL-aligned groups like the Alliance for a Better Minnesota plan to make it an issue in the 2012 election by targeting campaign ads at districts where schools went to the voters to get additional funding. Republicans don’t plan to let it drop, either. Garofalo has introduced legislation that would prohibit school referendums in non-general election years. It’s a move he says will prevent schools from taking advantage of low voter turnout in off-years to raise taxes.
“With other parts of the budget, Republicans have behaved as if raising property taxes was OK, including the changes in LGA and elimination of the Market Value Homestead Credit,” said Steve Kelley, a former DFL Senate Education chairman and gubernatorial candidate. “I think these local voters, along with their school boards, have made a case that that’s not true.”
The graphic below presents the results of a handful of school levies in districts represented by GOP levy critics and some key education committee personnel. [Click to enlarge]