After working on fiscal policy issues in a number of other states, Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation Research Director Sarah Curry was surprised to find that nobody in the Hawkeye State compiled a list of all the debts and taxes voters were being asked to approve. So, she set about to change that. I speak with her about that effort, and her drive to deliver more information to voters, for the Overton Window podcast.
“That really bothered me because I feel like voters should know when things have been passed,” Curry says. “As local governments continue to ask taxpayers for more and more, I think that history is important so that everyone has context for what they’re asking.”
Some of this information was available, but it depended on the local government official in charge of elections. “If you’re lucky enough to live in a county where the auditor cares about elections, all of that information is on their website,” Curry says. “If you are unlucky enough to live in a county where the auditor doesn’t care or they don’t put a lot of money into their information technology department, you have no information whatsoever.”
Iowa law requires voter approval of local debts and tax millages to pay down debts. Iowa even goes beyond simple majority voter requirements and asks for 60% of voters to approve these proposals. This ensures that the debts and tax policies of local governments are supported by a majority of voters. But proponents of unpopular proposals bend the rules by asking voters to approve debts and taxes during low-turnout elections.
“Iowa is the first presidential caucus in the nation. Iowa has one of the highest voter registration proportions in all of the 50 states. So, we have a very engaged electorate,” Curry says. “Sometimes only 1.5% of registered voters were participating in these bond elections. I think it’s because they were being held in these off times and nobody knew when they were happening.”
She requested information from all the local auditors, including the voter turnout and election results, and compiled it on the foundation’s website,. “I was happy to do that. And a lot of people ended up using it. It got a lot of headlines. I think it got a lot more people talking. And I think that also contributed to higher voter engagement,” Curry says. “It’s about getting voters involved, because the decisions made at the local level impact us on a daily basis.”
Indeed, the state Legislature changed the rules after seeing that many of these questions were being asked in low-turnout elections and. Debt authorizations now must be approved in November elections, and voters have to be informed about what they’re being asked to approve. The local government asking for authorization must send voters postcards stating what will be on the ballot.
The new law was successful in getting more voters to weigh in on ballot questions. Curry found this out when she updated her database for the November election. “I went to all 99 auditors, and I collected all the data, and the voter turnout was much, much higher,” she says.
She’d prefer it if the state government did this work instead of her. Iowa’s Secretary of State can collect bond questions and centralize information about it. The office reported this information for some of the elections but didn’t keep the information on its website. “I’m one of those people who want things in statute,” Curry says. “I want to know what the expectations are. And I want to know that it’s going to happen in the future.”
The November requirements and voter notices don’t apply to all tax levies, like hotel taxes or local option sales tax levies. Curry would like to see them included in the future. “I just want voters to know what’s going on. And if their taxes are going to go up, they should know about it and have a say,” she says.
There is work for local voters to do in advocating for or against the proposals. Curry can do some of that, but she also wants voters to know what is being asked around the state. “We’re not saying these are good or these are bad bonds,” she says. “What we’re saying is people need to be engaged and people need to have a voice. If their community is signing itself up for a 20-year payoff, there should be significant voter engagement. And that’s what we saw.”
“As part of our ITR local government project, we have reported the property tax revenue for a lot of these districts and we’ve compared it to population, inflation and the school’s enrollment. We called out a few districts where enrollment has declined, revenue has increased, and they were still calling for more tax-supported debt authorization,” Curry says.
“A lot of the Des Moines metro areas are growing. They have a legitimate need,” Curry says. “There were a few counties that needed a new jail or a new EMS system. Those measures passed. We found that the measures that were a bit greedy, I guess you could say, those measures did not pass.”
It’s an example of how compiling information can help change a policy’s feasibility.
Curry wants to expand the project outside of Iowa. “I’ve contacted a bunch of municipal bond attorneys,” she says. “I contacted Moody’s. I’ve asked a ton of groups, and they respond that no, every state has their own rules and regulations regarding municipal bond elections. No one has taken the time to inventory that. If you’re an up-and-coming master’s or PhD student who needs a thesis topic, this one’s ripe for the literature.”
She’d love to get more historical records on property taxes. “Property taxes were enacted in Iowa before statehood,” she says. “They have a long history here. And they’ve been abused and have a very important role in our state’s history. It is very important to learn from history so that we don’t repeat mistakes of the past.”
As Curry demonstrated, voters want some additional information to inform their votes. The data they want can shift the bounds of the Overton Window and change what is politically feasible.
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