Thursday, February 04, 2010

Why not a billion dollar override?

In 1980 Proposition 2½ was passed by Massachusetts voters.

But Amherst voters were against it by a 3 to 1 margin.

I wonder what would have happened if the 1981 Select Board had asked those same voters to approve a billion dollar override. That would have been an effective way of vetoing Prop 2½. A billion dollar override would mean the Select Board and Town Meeting would have to come up with budgets the way they did before-- decide how much money is needed, how much people were willing to pay, and then convincing a majority of Town Meeting that the budgets are justified.

For true public goods, that's actually a reasonably good process. But Prop 2½ screwed it up.

I wrote about one study that showed some unintended consequences a couple of years ago:
"It takes time for various levels of government to institute and implement changes, but following a brief lag, California and Massachusetts began to make up those lost revenues, largely through rapidly growing non-tax fees and charges. During a period of "tax revolt," these revenue sources were both less constrained and less visible to voters than taxes."
From: A tale of two tax jurisdictions: the surprising effects of California's Proposition 13 and Massachusetts' Proposition 2 ½ - property tax
I think another unintended consequence was the centralization of funding at the State level. Our schools and Towns are increasingly reliant on money from the State instead of local property taxes, and I think Amherst is worse off because of it.

Maybe that's OK-- maybe Holyoke is much better off because more education funding is funneling through the State education bureaucracy and being spread around from rich places like Amherst to poorer places in the state. Ummm, no, after 30 years: Holyoke, Springfield, ranked as 2 lowest performing school districts in Mass. (September 14, 2009)

So: why not a billion dollar override? I'm only half serious, although the more I think about it the more the idea appeals to me. Either we trust the Select Board, School Committee, and Town Meeting to be fiscally responsible... or we're screwed, because even with Prop 2½ they could decide to take all our property taxes and build a monorail to Belchertown.


Gavin Andresen said...

Commenting on my own post feels weird...

... but I want to point out some fuzzy thinking before somebody else did it for me.

Just because Holyoke is one of the worst-performing school districts in the state today (as it was 30 years ago) doesn't mean centralized funding has failed. Maybe the GAP between Holyoke and Amherst has narrowed, and, even though it's still worst, it's much better than it was.

I was actually searching for historical MCAS scores to see if Holyoke students have improved when I ran across the newspaper article I cite. It would also be interesting to see if the gap in spending-per-pupil has narrowed.

My guess is that the gaps in both performance and spending are just as big as they ever were (and if I wasn't feeling lazy this morning I'd look up the numbers to see).

Anonymous said...

In posing the idea of a billion dollar override, you are suggesting something that sounds ridiculous on its face. Until one thinks about it and realizes that you're not.

In a similar vein, it could have been included in the original legislation that a town or city could opt out of Prop 2.5 if it chose to do so. Or it could opt out for terms of, say, 6 years at a time, subject to reapproval each time.

What would the "horror" of opting out mean? Simply that we would be required to continue, as before, to hold our elected officials accountable for all of their fiscal decisions, while recognizing that it's more efficient and wise to allow those people to make decisions about the need for additional revenues. The voters would still have the chance to kick out those elected if they wanted to.

Let me see......I believe that's what's traditionally known as representative democracy. It's based on the proposition that our representatives are expected to make wiser decisions on certain specialized matters of governance, that, with all of the other demands of life, everyone cannot be the smartest person in town on government. But we've decided that we don't believe in that anymore, with, I would argue, some nasty consequences.

I would love to lock each person who gave us Prop 2.5, and each of those who love it today, in a room with one book, "The Federalist Papers". Our founding fathers understood the pitfalls of leaving certain difficult, intricate decisions to the mob. But we've chosen to turn away from their cautious approach to democracy.

Rich Morse

Larry Kelley said...

As long as "the mob" is made up of voters, Mr. Morse.

Gavin Andresen said...

Rich: it does sound ridiculous. I'd love to do the experiment of:

1. Polling Amherst voters and ask if they would be in favor of repealing Prop 2½.
2. Putting a billion dollar override on the ballot, and running a campaign of "vote for the billion dollar override to repeal Prop 2½."

That'd help answer the perennial question: just how smart and curious are the voters?

And to Larry: Prop 2½ was supposed to make local voters "the mob" deciding whether to raise local taxes or not. It looks like it instead gave "the mob" on Beacon Hill more control over our wallets (and created strong incentives for "the mob" in Town Hall to find sneaky ways of raising money aside from property taxes).

I'm trying to resist all the cliches running through my head... ah, heck:
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
And keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

Larry Kelley said...

Or: Hell hath no fury like a voter scorned (as the Dems in Mass just found out.)

Anonymous said...

That does seem to be the 1.9 million
dollar question: just how smart and curious are the voters?

And, of course, if you give the "wrong" answer to that question, you are considered to be dissing the wisdom and common sense of the American people.

But, I think that the founders had this right. Representative democracy is different from pure democracy, and, even as we turn away from it, I still think it's better.

Government by referendum is a fool's game, whether we're talking property taxes, leg-hold traps, dog racing, or gun ownership rights. The founders stayed away from it, and for a reason. We need to figure out ways to make representative democracy better, not design end-runs around it.

Rich Morse

Larry Kelley said...

And in Amherst we are "represented" by Town Meeting members who got on the ballot with one name--their own; and still 20% of the three-year-seats up for grabs don't even have a single candidate.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kelley's response is a non sequitur. I said we need to find ways to make representative democracy better.

Town Meeting doesn't work because it doesn't mean anything to voters.

And here's where he and I agree: we need a Mayor (with or without the Manager) and a Town Council to run the town. We need to stop slicing and dicing political power in Amherst into little bits and then running people off against and past each other. We need to give elected representatives including a Mayor an opportunity to lead AND to be held publicly accountable. There's no accountability in TM and thus it has become simply an oligarchy (that sometimes includes me).

Town Meeting or the Assembly of the Status Quo.

Rich Morse

Larry Kelley said...


Although now I'm starting to wonder if Princess Stephanie would get your vote for Mayor.

And by all means, can the Town Manager position. We don't need no stinkin "Captain Dunsel."