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Lawmakers seek to limit school levy votes

Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau Reps. Pat Garofalo of Farmington (left) and Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa on Wednesday talk about a bill they support to require school levy referendums to be placed on general election ballots.

ST. PAUL -- More than 100 Minnesota school districts ask voters to approve paying $900 million more property taxes next week in an election some Republican lawmakers said was scheduled to favor passage.

"This is not good for democracy," Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said Wednesday.

Garofalo, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said he will push a bill in the next legislative session to require such levy referendums to come only in general elections when more voters go to the polls.

Few voters will turn out next week, he said, and most will be referendum supporters.

Also, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said, special elections like those being held in many of the school districts cost more than if the question was on a general election ballot.

The bottom line for Garofalo was: "It is important to have more citizens involved."

School representatives, however, said there is no attempt to slip tax increases through in little-noticed elections. Grace Keliher of the Minnesota State School Board Association said districts planning referendum votes must send letters to every household in the district to explain the issue, as well as printing information in the local newspaper.

School board members spend a lot of time making sure residents get the most for their tax money, Keliher said, and would not call an election if money was not really needed.

Many of the levies up for renewal next week were approved 10 years ago. Keliher said a decade ago there were 180 such votes, while there are just 114 on Tuesday.

School officials also said off-year elections give the public more of a chance to learn about school votes. During presidential years like 2012, for instance, such issues would be overwhelmed by attention paid to other things on the ballot, they said.

Garofalo said Minnesotans learn more about busy elections, like the one next year, than they do about obscure ones like next week.

"Districts know the facts: Their levies are more likely to be approved in odd-year elections because of lower turnout and lower voter engagement," Garofalo said.

During off-year elections, more than 70 percent of levy referendums pass, the lawmaker said, while the rate falls to 52 percent in even-numbered years.

Garofalo said the schools are seeking added revenue even though the governor and lawmakers this year already have increased school spending $650 million. Many planned next week's election before the Legislature approved its budget, he added.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.