A record year for referenda

A record year for referenda

In the last decade, school referenda have become a fixture on ballots around Wisconsin. Now, with inflation raging and little growth in state levy limits and aid, other local governments such as municipalities and counties are posing these questions to voters — and often, finding approval.

County and municipal referenda passed in record numbers in 2022, while voters also approved the largest number of referenda for school districts’ operating budgets in more than two decades.

In the November election, 104 referenda asked voters to allow their school district, municipality or county to exceed state limits on local property taxes. In unofficial vote tallies, 82 of them, or 78.8%, passed.

Eighteen of 23 municipal and county referenda (78.3%) were approved this November and an additional 11 passed in other elections throughout the year. The total of 29 such measures approved in 2022 was more than double any other year on record in Wisconsin.

In 21 of the 23 referenda on local ballots last week, the questions to voters noted that some or all of the tax dollars would be spent on public safety – police, fire protection, emergency medical services (EMS), or all three. This included all four referenda in cities: Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Middleton, and Whitewater, each of which passed by at least a 12 percentage-point margin.

Notably however, the largest local referendum failed: Washington County voters rejected by 43.6% to 56.4% a measure that would have increased property taxes by up to $3.6 million to fund an anti-crime plan.

The success of these referenda suggests that — absent action by state policymakers — they could become a long-term feature of the state’s political landscape. Most recently, skyrocketing inflation has been a crucial factor that has brought to boil a long-simmering set of challenges in Wisconsin’s state fiscal relationship with its local governments.

For municipalities, counties, and technical colleges, the state generally has limited annual increases in their operating budgets to the previous year’s rate of local net new construction – a metric that at the state level has lagged inflation in recent years, particularly in 2022. The current state budget also provided little in the way of increased shared revenue (or general aid payments) to local governments, though it did provide some additional aid for local roads.

Moving forward, a central question is whether this trend toward more local referenda widens disparities between wealthy communities – ones most likely to vote in favor of referenda – and those with lesser means.

Looking to the next state budget for the two years starting July 1, the state is projected to have a large surplus. If state policymakers choose, they could act to address challenges facing local governments by providing more state aid, offering localities more options to generate revenue, such as through sales taxes, or incentivizing greater spending efficiencies by initiatives such as service sharing.

This information is a service of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the state’s leading resource for nonpartisan state and local government research and civic education. Learn more at wispolicyforum.org.