January 2009

 “Do Over! Do Over!”

By Deborah D. Thornton 

Children on the playground often call “Do over! Do over!” when an argument breaks out about the result of a play during a baseball game and no one has enough power among the group to announce a decision and make everyone else accept it. This is an easy solution to wasting time, standing around arguing about whether or not Johnny was safe at first or not.  On a playground, among children, this is a quick, inexpensive, and reasonable solution to an impasse.

Unfortunately, local elected officials and governments in Iowa have adopted this solution in response to failed election results on tax initiatives. If the voters turn down a ballot initiative raising taxes, and you – the county supervisor or school board official – know they’re wrong, you just make them do it over again, and again, until you get the result you want.

For example, in November voters in rural Webster County, (the area around Fort Dodge), defeated a one percent local option sales tax increase, by 46 to 54 percent.  Their more urban neighbors in the county approved the tax and it is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2009, following the expiration of the current one half percent local option sales tax (LOST).[1]  The monies are to be used for road and bridge repair and county owned property maintenance and development.  However, because the county voters, and voters in the small towns of Badger (610 people) and Stratford (679) did not approve the measure the funds collected from the LOST can not be used by the county, but only for those towns that approved the tax.  All people making purchases in the areas imposing the tax will pay it, even if they live outside that area.  According to County Supervisors, those voters defeated the tax because they had a “lack of information.”

Presumably if they had only had enough of the right information, they would have been smart enough to vote the right way, and pass the tax, along with the rest of the county. The Supervisors have therefore decided to call a “Do over!” and hold a special election for those areas of the county on March 3, 2009.  To ensure the voters have enough of the right information, they will hold a series of public meetings between now and March to inform voters of why they were wrong to vote “no” on the tax.

In September voters in the Wapsie Valley School District also turned down a tax increase, or at least part of a tax increase. They were asked to vote on both a bond issue and a property tax increase.  Both taxes are intended to pay for new schools, and will provide from $8 to $11 million for new school buildings.  These taxes are in addition to the statewide local option sales tax for schools approved by the Iowa Legislature last year.  The bond measure passed by a “slim” margin, with a super majority of 60 percent required.  When the property tax increase failed, for what was actually the second time, it received only 59.41 percent, instead of 60 percent.[2]  The first attempt to pass a property tax increase was defeated in December, 2007.  The third “Do over!” vote on this tax increase was on December 9, and school board members were finally able to get it passed, by a “razor-thin margin” of 1.45 percent.[3] Iowa state law does not provide for a waiting period on this type of vote before allowing a “Do over!” and one imagines that if it had failed on December 9, yet another vote would have been taken next spring.

As part of the third vote, the Fayette County Sheriff’s office became involved; working at the request of the school board to make sure voters knew that September election involved automated “robo” calls encouraging the bond’s defeat. School board members and supporters of the bond alleged that the “robo” calls contained “false” information and were the reason the bond vote failed.[4]  They were also concerned that bond opponents were working with an out-of-town consultant who is an expert on defeating special tax elections.[5]  However, the supporter group, “Kids Committee,” also worked with an out of town consultant group.

Opponents of the bond, a group called ABC (A Better Choice) Committee, argued that there are other, more cost effective options for the schools, especially in the current economic climate. Additionally, they believed that the significant amount of funds available through the bonds and the local option sales tax money (SILO) already being allocated for the next ten years should be sufficient for the district’s needs.  Total SILO money for Fiscal Year 2008 for the Wapsie Valley School District was almost $300,000.[6]  It would appear that the committee had enough information to make a decision, and worked to inform others of their opinion.

Supporters of the property tax increase, in contrast, believe that they succeeded ultimately because of “perseverance, teamwork, and a successful education effort.” The District Superintendent stated that each time it was on the ballot the voters learned “more and more about the need.”  He was further encouraged that they learned “more about how it can be financed,” and “gained information they didn’t have before, and were open-minded.”[7]

Or maybe voters just became tired of listening to the calls for “Do over! Do over!” and gave them the result they were demanding – which might be appropriate on the playground, but not in government. At some point elected officials need to realize that “No means No” and look for other solutions instead of taxing our money.

Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst at Public Interest Institute. 

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute or Tax Education Foundation. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.

[1] “It’s back to the polls in Webster Co.” Jesse Helling, The Ft. Dodge Messenger, December 3, 2008, A1.

[2] “Wapsie Valley prepares for third elementary vote,” Josh Nelson, The Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, December 6, 2008, A3.

[3] “Third time is a charm for Wapsie Valley bond issue,” Janelle Penny, Oelwein Daily Register, December 11, 2008.

[4] “Authorities say phone ‘spoofing’ used in first Wapsie bond issue vote,” Jack Swanson, Oelwein Daily Register, December 2, 2008.

[5] “Reputation follows consultant hired by bond issue opponents,” Jack Swanson, Oelwein Daily Register, December 4, 2008.

[6] School Local Option Report, <http://www.state.ia.us/tax/locgov/locgovLOST.html> December 12, 2008.

[7] “Third time is a charm.”