House K-12 Finance Chair Pat Garofalo unveiled a proposal Wednesday that would force local school districts to hold school levy referendums only in even-numbered years and as part of general elections.
Garofalo said the move would enable more citizens to weigh in during elections when voter participation is higher, although he stopped short of saying how the change might affect a given levy’s chances at the polls. Too often, he added, levies get approved or denied in elections where turnout can be as low as 15 percent.
“This bill is about transparency, open democracy and greater public participation in school levies,” Garofalo said. “Districts know the facts – their levies are more likely to be approved in odd-year elections because of lower turnout and lower voter engagement.”
The proposal is the latest step into the local politics of school finances in a year where a near-record number of districts have sought to either extend or increase their levies. DFLers and some local officials have sought to lay blame for the increasing levies on tightening state budgets, an increased school shift and the GOP’s “no-new-taxes” pledge.
DFLers at the Capitol were no friendlier to Garofalo’s proposal. ““Legislative Republicans tied one hand behind the back of school districts with their shifts and gimmicks. Now they want to tie the other hand,” House K-12 Finance Minority Lead Mindy Greiling said in a statement. “This proposal is an attack on local control.”
Sen. Chuck Wiger, a ranking member on the Senate Education Committee, called the plan an “unbelievable ruse.”
“Changing when school districts can hold levy elections will not cover up for the fact that state funding—when adjusted for inflation—has decreased 13 percent since 2003,” he said. “This proposal does absolutely nothing to help our students succeed or to close Minnesota’s persistent achievement gap.”
Republicans, for their part, have dismissed that criticism and have not been shy about inserting themselves into local debates over levies. GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski, who joined Garofalo at his Capitol news conference, has been among the most outspoken critics of local tax increases.
Another staunch opponent of local tax increases has been former House Taxes Chair Phil Krinkie, who also joined Garofalo at the Capitol Wednesday morning. Krinkie took his criticism a step further, saying school districts were purposefully scheduling levy votes in off-year elections to take advantage of low voter turnout and interest. “It’s deceptive,” he said.
More than 130 school districts will have levies on the ballot this coming Tuesday, asking voters to approve as much as $900 million in tax increases, according to Garofalo’s estimation.