Michael Hicks is the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics and the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.
In a recent column I explained the willingness of taxpayers to spend more on local improvements and provided examples of my experience in Ohio. That argument was put to the test last week as Indiana communities considered a dozen school referenda. The sample of places couldn’t really have been a more diverse cross-section of Indiana. They included the pretty little town of Alexandria and urban Allen County. There were referenda in the fast-growing Indy suburb of Avon in Hendricks County, and in rural Starke County. The referenda were offered in GOP strongholds and counties who haven’t voted Republican in my lifetime. Growing Goshen and distressed Marion both held votes on school funding, and farmlands of Whitely and the city of Anderson also asked voters for new construction or operating expenses.
Every one of these referenda passed, mostly by overwhelming margins. Only three passed below 60 percent of the vote, while four above 70 percent. It was an aggregate landslide in favor of higher local property taxes to support education.
None of these votes were easy, and at least one corporation failed at a previous referendum. But, what marks this is the variety of communities asking for more resources and the overwhelming support given by voters.
I write about them this week, not to gloat about the predictive accuracy of my recent column, but to reinforce the simple notions of local governance that these cities reveal. Households reveal their preferences for local services at the ballot box and through their location decisions. Generally, I would write about the role the General Assembly might play in moving the May elections for school boards and referenda to November. But, I think the first steps lie with voters and local governments.
As voters, we must be more attentive to local elections. It’s a great oddity that almost everyone with a political mindset is busy handicapping the mid-term congressional elections or following the most recent presidential tweets, but has no idea when next school board meeting is scheduled. The outcome of local elections affect the value of your home, the quality of your child’s education and your own personal safety far more than any national candidate.
The events of this week should make especially clear the need to focus on local elections, both because of the referenda, but also because of House Bill 1315. The floundering of both Muncie and Gary schools is directly due to voter inattention with their school boards. Both schools succumbed to a narrow interest group vote that led the school boards to illegally overspend and bankrupt their system. The new financial warning system will help this, but absolutely nothing replaces interested and thoughtful voters. Nothing.
Local governments also have a role. Indiana could use much more local transparency, and I call on municipal governments to comply with standards set forth by the Government Accounting Standards Board. It is a bit more costly, but it will establish real trust with voters. Good accounting is unsexy, but needed.
I also think that asking voters for support should be accompanied by lengthy public discussions. Goshen won its referenda because it did just that. Explaining why a particular service is so critical is part of the governing process. I think Anderson’s school referenda also reflects a maturity in perspective that was lacking throughout the Mounds Lake debate. This probably marks a turning point for the city.
Finally, I’ll repeat myself by noting that communities that get the fundamentals right will ultimately flourish. No grand scheme will ever replace that, and there’s no way to get the fundamentals right without good, responsive local government and a participating citizenry.