Voters Deserve Final Say on Pricey Construction Projects

March 2, 2009

For release March 4 and thereafter (750 words/108-word trim)

From a citizen’s perspective, one of the best bills passed by the 2008 legislature was the one giving us a bigger say on multi-million-dollar public construction projects. The House Democrats’ desire to gut the law this session suggests they are either out of touch or oblivious to taxpayer reality.
   
The Democrat-controlled House voted 52-48 for a measure that would exempt from voter scrutiny school and other government construction projects that meet energy efficiency requirements. The bill’s backers said they were trying to remove obstacles that might keep these projects from getting approved in time to be eligible for federal economic stimulus money.
   
Really? As passed by the House, the bill doesn’t mention stimulus funds and would apply to a host of projects financed by property taxes including new construction, repair, alteration and retrofitting. Besides, nobody knows at this point if any of the projects will even qualify for stimulus spending.
   
House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the House action was the most “unfriendly property taxpayer vote” he’s seen. Not only would it eliminate taxpayer input but it would encourage expensive technologies that would drive up construction costs. This makes no sense at a time of budget tightening.
   
Democrats are clearly hoping to use the stimulus as an excuse to retreat on a law that many of them didn’t like from the get-go. They perceive the current law, passed with both chambers in Republican hands, as an impediment to much-needed building projects. And they don’t trust voters to look beyond their own financial self-interest to the needs of the larger community.
   
The reality, however, has been far different.
   
The law allows voters to determine the fate of kindergarten through middle school projects costing more than $10 million and high school projects costing more than $20 million.  It also allows a vote on other local government capital projects costing more than $12 million.
   
In the first test of the new law in November, voters in four school districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools and Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp., approved bond issues that many had predicted would go down in defeat, proving that citizens are willing to spend money if they feel it’s justified.
   
The $278 million IPS bond issue was to pay for things like air conditioning and improved restroom facilities, ventilation and lighting. The $149 million Evansville bond issue was to build a new high school and a new middle school and expand and upgrade security at several other schools.
   
Kelly Bentley, a member of the IPS board, said she was surprised when their referendum passed by a hefty margin even in neighborhoods that had been hard hit by property tax hikes. “Some have argued that voters didn’t know what they were voting for and there may have been some of that.  But I worked the polls at School 59 (Kessler and Keystone) and you can’t tell me that those voters were not informed.”
   
The referendum law is not perfect, she said, especially when it comes to the role the school corporation is to play after its board approves the project in the first place. “I do think the rules need to be clarified. For example, when does providing information turn into advocating? The rules also make having a large volunteer operation imperative.” A school cannot advocate for its own project, which has caused some critics to say supporters are at a disadvantage.
   
Yet of seven school referenda held in Indiana to date, only three have failed and two of those votes took place since January after the national and state economic pictures soured. Voters indeed can discriminate between necessary and unnecessary spending.
   
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In November, voters in the Richland-Bean Blossom district rejected a $35 million project. In January, Noblesville residents voted down a $59.5 million building plan. In February, residents of the Clinton Central School Corp. voted against borrowing $22.5 million for school renovations and a new auditorium.
   
At least three school referenda are scheduled this spring. Center Grove residents will vote in May on a $142.36 million plan to renovate the high school and build a new elementary. Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson School Corp. will consider a $26 million renovation plan and Mooresville voters will decide whether to commit $90 million for a new middle school and renovations at the high school.

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In other states with referenda, experience suggests that voters will approve the projects about 60 percent of the time. Whether good times or bad, those are better than decent odds for public officials wanting to spend millions in taxpayer money.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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