Chill the Madison referendums – Isthmus

I have one goal for the November elections: stop Donald Trump. 

So, I evaluate everything else in terms of how it serves or detracts from the effort to prevent the worst, most dangerous man ever to occupy the office of president from returning to it. 

Which leads me to conclude that local governments here in Madison have to back off from the referendums they’re considering for the November ballot. 

There are three potential questions for November. The school board is considering two, one to increase operating budget spending above state taxing limits and the other to make capital investments in elementary and middle schools. Meanwhile, the city of Madison, facing a $22 million budget gap, is mulling a referendum asking voters to exceed its own state-imposed taxing limit. 

All told, the school board’s proposals would add a few hundred dollars each year to the average tax bill, culminating in a total of $1,300 by 2028. It’s not yet clear how much the city would ask for, but if they move forward it would likely be somewhere between a few and several hundred dollars more per year. The school board is expected to sign off on the referendum questions later this month while the city has until early August to decide. 

Which brings us to the Trump problem. These numbers are big. You have to go back to 2005 for the last time Madison voters turned down a school referendum and the most recent questions have passed by a three-to-one margin. But the numbers for those questions were in the hundreds of dollars. When you propose over $1,000 in tax increases, that’s going to get people’s attention and it could generate something we haven’t seen in a long time around here – organized opposition. 

If I were the Republicans I’d do that organizing. Because if they could turn out conservative voters over the local spending issue and trim what will be Biden’s inevitable overwhelming margin in Madison by just a few points, that could be enough to nudge Wisconsin to Trump and with it, the whole election. 

For example, if opposition to the referendums resulted in lowering Biden’s margin by just, say, three percentage points, that’s about 5,000 votes. It’s almost a dead certainty that the election in Wisconsin will come down once again to around 20,000 votes or less — the same margin for the last two presidential elections. In fact, Al Gore won Wisconsin in 2000 by half that margin. Five thousand votes in Madison could go a long way toward putting Trump back in the White House. And when you add unhappiness on the left regarding Biden’s policies on the Israel-Hamas war, the numbers could be even worse for him. 

So, regardless of the merits of these referendums I hope the school board and the city council will not move forward with them now, or at least not at the projected amounts. And, incidentally, on those merits, adding more than $1,000 to the average tax bill will do nothing to solve Madison’s affordable housing problem. 

The city can delay its referendum. Its rainy day fund is very healthy, at about 23% of the city budget, well above the 15% target. Through a combination of spending cuts and use of that fund, a referendum could be put off for a year or two. It’s not a sustainable practice, but it’s not terribly irresponsible either, especially if city officials are transparent about what they’re doing. 

The school board can always delay capital expenditures. In fact, in this case it’s probably a good idea since the district just got done with extensive and expensive renovations of its high schools and with building a brand new elementary school on the south side. Taxpayers might be justified in asking for a breather. 

The tough question is the district’s proposed referendum for its operating budget. Right now that’s projected to add $317 to the average tax bill next year alone and then more each year until 2028. If they could trim that back to something that is around $200 for next year and keep the cumulative impact well below $1,000 by 2028, that would make it much harder for Republicans to generate much in the way of opposition. They could also plan for another referendum down the road. 

I confess to having little hope that this strategy will be followed. The school board, a heavily ideological group, seems bound and determined to move ahead. I have more hope for the city, but if the school district goes ahead it might not matter because those two school referendums are enough, I would think, to generate some serious, well-organized opposition that can only hurt Biden. 

So, it comes down to this. It’s not implausible that the Madison school board could play an outsized role in reelecting Donald Trump. We’ll find out on June 24 when they vote to place questions on the November ballot.

Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison- and Upper Peninsula-based writer who served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. You can read more of his work at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos.

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