School referenda pass at unprecedented rates

In the two spring elections held this year (February and April), 44 Wisconsin school districts placed 56 referenda on the ballot, some to borrow and some to exceed state-imposed revenue limits. Voters passed them at rates significantly above historical norms.

Twenty-one of the referenda asked to borrow money to construct new or to remodel existing buildings. Fifteen (71%) passed. That percentage was well above the 1994-2013 average of 54% and matched the 2012 percentage as the highest since 1994.

In addition to borrowing, districts can ask voters to exceed state-imposed revenue limits temporarily (nonrecurring) or permanently (recurring).  Of the 29 nonrecurring referenda, 20 (69%) passed. Again, this percentage was well above the 1994-2013 average (56%). The 69% approval rate was the highest percentage since 1996 when the only referendum on the ballot passed. It also continues a recent trend of high approval rates: Voters approved more than 65% of nonrecurring referenda in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

The remaining six referenda were permanent (recurring) ones; four (67%) passed. During 1994-2013, only 34% of recurring referenda were approved.

Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a school referendum. One overriding factor in recent years may be the limited growth in revenue limits during 2010-14. In 2009, districts were allowed to increase their per student limits $275, or about the rate of inflation. The average per student limit at the time was about $9,500.  State budget problems led to a smaller allowable increase ($200) in both 2010 and 2011.

Continued state difficulties resulted in a 5.5% cut in 2012, though the impact of the reduction was limited in many districts due to changes in collective bargaining laws included in the controversial Act 10 that allowed districts to reduce benefit costs. Allowable increases over the past two years have been small, $50 and $75, respectively.

The combination of allowable revenues growing less than inflation and many district costs rising more (e.g., transportation and utilities) have increased pressure on school budgets, with some districts reducing programs to balance their budgets. One interpretation of the higher approval rates is voter recognition of this phenomenon and a willingness to approve tax increases to ease the pressure.

A recent issue of The Wisconsin Taxpayer ( studied the history of Wisconsin school referenda.


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Good news, bad news on the income front

New income figures from the federal government offer  encouraging news about Wisconsin’s economy, but they also show economic expansion slowing both here and nationally.

Wisconsin per capita personal income (PCPI) rose 2.4% in 2013, from $42,121 to $43,149. The increase was 7th highest among the states and above the national average (1.8%). Among neighboring states, only per capita income in Iowa (2.7%) grew faster.

Our higher per capita income growth was due to a combination of two factors.  First, total income  here increased slightly more than nationwide (2.7% vs. 2.6%). But, in keeping with a long-term trend, our population grew more slowly (0.3% vs. 0.7%).  As a result, PCPI growth in Wisconsin outpaced the U.S.

Digging a little deeper into the new numbers from Washington reveals another positive for the state. Total personal income includes many forms of income (see below).   But it was earnings that drove rising incomes in Wisconsin (2.2% vs. 2.0% for the U.S.).  Total earnings grew 2.2% in Wisconsin compared to 2.0% nationally.  Farm-owner earnings rose 41.7% in Wisconsin, compared to 15.9% elsewhere.  Earnings of other business owners also grew faster here (6.8% vs. 6.2%). Wage and salary workers also did slightly better (3.2% vs. 3.1%).

These new findings have some discouraging news: In all 50 states, both total income and earnings increased at a slower pace in 2013 than in 2012.  Moreover, both total earnings and income grew less in 2013 than in all but two recessionary years during 1990-2012 (see chart below; black line indicates 2013 percent change).

Personal income is a broad measure of the financial well-being of a nation, state, or county and includes earnings, employer-paid benefits, dividends, interest, and government transfer payments, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, and food stamps.



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Lessons for today from an exemplary life of past public service

By Todd A. Berry, Ph.D.
President, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance

MADISON—The death of a friend or loved one brings a rush of emotions:  sorrow, grief, emptiness, even relief.  But I never thought of it as a teachable moment until the recent passing of James R. Morgan, former president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Except for six years as the state’s chief tax official, Mr. Morgan—as his staff always called him—dedicated his entire professional career to the nonpartisan WTA, including 23 years as president.  Spanning six decades, his contributions to the civic life of Wisconsin were innumerable and significant.

A reporter in the mid-80s observed that “. . . not many elective offices would significantly increase Morgan’s current influence in Wisconsin.”  Echoed another:  “If the legislature or governor set up a special government study group without inviting WTA President Morgan to participate, the entire statehouse establishment would be surprised.”

For those who knew him as devoted father and grandfather, mentor, or advisor, Jim Morgan’s passing was a personal loss.  But what is also sad about his death is its painful reminder that Wisconsin government and politics have changed since his retirement more than 20 years ago.

Destructive partisanship. Recent UW research on state legislative voting reveals a hostile, tribal environment with no neutral zone where members can reach consensus.  Party positions are hardened; party discipline is enforced; and deviance is punished.  Even cross-party socializing is discouraged.

This is not the legislature Jim Morgan knew nor the example he set.  “Morgan has steadfastly refused to serve the agenda of any politician or group,” one journalist noted.  Another reminded that “he has never declared a partisan affiliation.”  Indeed, valuing his expertise, governors of both parties asked him to serve in a variety of advisory capacities.

Careerist politics. One factor in the emergence of partisan, “take-no-prisoners” politics is the nature of the job.  For many lawmakers, it is now full-time with benefits, covered expenses, staff, and office budgets to match.  This has placed the fate of individual legislators in the hands of party leaders with the power to choose committee chairs and members, schedule bills, and even control campaign funds and workers.

Jim Morgan long ago understood the downside of a full-time, professional legislature.  In a 1986 interview, he offered an example that lamented young state lawmakers’ lack of sympathy for the problems of local town, city and county governments.  “It’s because of a lack of understanding,” he explained, “They’ve never gone through it.”

Defer and deny. Recently, Capitol observers have worried that Wisconsin is unable to address major problems.  Long-term slowing of economic growth, reliable funding of state roads, state fiscal stability, school finance, and higher education reform are examples.  State politics have become too poisonously partisan and ambition-driven to act.

Jim Morgan’s life suggests a better path.  “Jim isn’t usually espousing a point of view.  He kind of leads people into reaching an agreement,” one legislative agency head recalled.  Or, as Morgan once told a reporter:  “I see things in a factual, pragmatic way, which isn’t necessarily a political way.”

In today’s politics where handlers teach that truth is plastic and winning elections is all that matters, the ultimate lesson Jim Morgan leaves us is about character.  He was often described as humble, honest, generous, witty, professional and civic-minded.  What the Milwaukee Journal said in 1993 still applies:  “Would that there were more like him around.”  Amen.  May we all be more like Jim Morgan.

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