Are referendum questions a permanent fixture?
By Kris Leonhardt
PORTAGE COUNTY – Have referenda become a permanent fixture on local ballots?
With the rise in the cost of living, inflation, and state caps on spending, local municipalities are finding it more and more difficult to keep up with a changing environment while providing services.
Of the 250 referendum questions posed to state voters in November, 104 of them asked school districts or municipalities to exceed state limits on property tax.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, of the 81 school district referenda posed to voters, 64 passed and 17 failed – a pass rate of nearly 80 percent.
“Combined with elections in the spring, 133 ballot items in 106 school districts were approved in 2022 – the second highest number of questions passed in any year since 2000, behind only 2018 (140,)” stated a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
State limits control the amount that can be collected through local property tax and state aid, and while the budget has allowed for an increase in state aid in the 2022-23 school year, it did not raise the per pupil revenue caps. The high rate of inflation also puts pressure to raise local funding,
Throughout the past decade, local municipalities have also been placed under state caps on property tax levies. With limited state aid, many turn to referendums or borrowing.
About 79 percent of the local government referenda passed in November, showing public support for appeals from both municipalities and school districts.
In Portage County, five of the nine referenda involved requests for spending – four of them for transportation projects.
The adoption of an April referendum requires a public vote on any large transportation project. All four of the transportation referenda passed, three of them by close to a 2 to 1 margin.
The lone school referendum for the School District of Waupaca requested “general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $3,875,000 for the public purpose of paying the cost of district-wide safety and security upgrades, including point of entry secure entrances and related equipment, building infrastructure improvements and capital maintenance.”
Those Portage County residents in the Waupaca School District approved the move by the same 2-to-1 margin, at 231-110.
With the current economic environment, levy limits, and the success of previous referenda, referendum questions may continue to hit the ballots to make ends meet.