The November midterm election is just three weeks away, and outside of choosing your candidate for Governor, US Senator, and a whole slew of other state officials, voters in Dane County will be presented with three non binding referendums.
Two of the county-wide questions concern the legalization of marijuana, one asking if it should be legalized, the other asking if previous convictions for marijuana should be expunged. It’s not the first time legalization has been on the ballot. A similar question to legalize weed was on the ballot in 2018, when 76% of voters approved it.
The third Dane County referendum on the ballot asks if Wisconsin’s 19th-century abortion ban should be repealed. Only one other county, Racine, asks a similar question.
These three questions are non-binding ballot referendums, designed more to gather the opinions of voters, and not to decide on any major policy change. Despite efforts by Governor Tony Evers, the state legislature decided earlier this month not to bring binding ballot initiatives to Wisconsin.
Additionally, 15 different municipalities across the county have their own referendums on the ballot as well. And of those referendums, 11 come from school districts asking to raise their revenue limits.
What are revenue limits? Chris Thiel, legislative policy manager with the Milwaukee Public School District, explains.
“Revenue limits are exactly what they sound like, it’s a limit on the amount of revenue a school district can raise to educate students. They were put in place in 1993, and ever since then the state has had a school funding system that starts off by putting a limit on how much a school can raise between state funds and local property taxes,” Thiel says.
This limit is set by the state and is non-negotiable except through ballot referendums.
But while these had previously been mostly used to help pay for larger projects, this year all but two revenue limit referendums in Dane County are looking for funding just to keep up the same level of quality within the district.
Take, for example, the School District of Belleville, which is asking for a revenue limit raise of a dollar short of one million dollars for one year for operational and maintenance expenses. But Belleville’s revenue limits have stayed roughly the same over the last decade, spending around $10,000 per student each year.
That’s according to data from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan policy research organization. Data from the Policy Forum also shows that Wisconsin spent an average of just under $13,000 a year per student on public schools, over 5% below the national average.
The trend of school districts asking to raise their revenue limits to cover basic costs is not just contained to Dane County. Of the 244 referendums across the state, a third refer to raising school district revenue caps.
Ari Brown is a senior research associate with the Wisconsin Policy Forum. He says that revenue limit referendums have been on the rise across the state.
“The trend over the last decade or so has been higher compared to what it was in the late 2000s, early 2010s. What we’ve seen over the last decade or so is that even numbered years we tend to have quite a few referenda on the ballot, and those numbers have been generally increasing over the last decade or so,” Brown says.
Only two years this millennium have had more revenue limit referendums, 2000 and 2001.
While the number of referendums have been rising over the past decade, Sara Shaw, senior researcher with the Wisconsin Policy Forum, says that this year is a bit different.
“This seems to be coming from districts facing frozen revenue limits in the 21-23 state budget, plus different distributions of federal pandemic relief money, and finally the cost of inflation, which has caused normal operating costs to skyrocket,” Shaw says.
There are other options available for school districts to raise money, but that would require the cooperation of the Republican-led state legislature, which has been hesitant to increase school funding. Last month, Governor Evers – who was the head of the Department of Public Instruction before he was elected – called on the Legislature to draw on the state surplus and boost spending on K-12 schools by roughly 2 billion dollars.
The midterm election takes place on November 8. You can preview what’s on your ballot at MyVote Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy: CDC / UNSPLASH