Selling school taxes and bond issues to a generationally diverse electorate: lessons from Florida referenda.
In the past five years, one-quarter of the school systems across the U.S. failed in their quests to sell bonds or raise taxes, according to a survey of 85 systems by the National School Boards Association. While bond issues and tax levies always have been a hard sell with taxpayers, hundreds of school boards nationwide recently have found themselves in an increasingly tough - and often futile - fight to win passage of fund-raising initiatives.
The failure rate has been even higher in Florida. In 1995, voters in six of eight counties located throughout the state and at both ends of the political spectrum defeated education-earmarked local option sales tax propositions. Florida's recent experiences have clearly shown that campaigns designed to sway the public to vote for higher taxes or bond sales must be conducted differently in age-diverse jurisdictions, particularly those with larger-than-average senior citizen populations.
This article takes a close look at exit surveys conducted by the author among voters in Hillsborough County (Tampa), Florida, who rejected a half-cent sales tax earmarked to education in 1995 but passed a "community investment tax" that included schools in 1996. A comparison is made of the campaign strategies used in the two referenda and in school tax and bond votes elsewhere across the U.S. The study is designed to provide better insights into who votes how and why and to explore what sales tactics work in a television-dominated, antigovernment era. Some important lessons for other school districts contemplating a tax referendum are drawn from the analyses.
Age Trends in Florida
In Florida, the nation's "grayest" state, residents 65 and older make up almost 19 percent of the total population and nearly one-fourth of the voting age population. They make up even higher percentages of registered and actual voters in many areas. The 25-44 year old age group also has grown considerably in recent years (up from 22 percent in 1970 to 29 percent in 1995), attracted to Florida by employment opportunities, sun, surf, and sand. The burgeoning school-age offspring of this group have strained the facilities and finances of many school districts. The problem is expected to worsen during the next 10 years. There will be a 21 percent increase in the 10-19 year old age group by 2008, according to projections reported in the governor's FY 1998 budget. Already overcrowded classrooms and facilities will not hold this mushrooming population.
Solving the problem will not be easy. Florida, one of the nation's most fiscally conservative, antitax states, is one of seven states with no personal income tax (constitutionally prohibited). Its voters have a long history of rejecting new revenue sources and rate increases. The last major new revenue source approved by the electorate was the state lottery in 1986. Ironically, the lottery, which initially was heavily touted as a cure-all for educational funding woes, has become one of the biggest deterrents to voter approval of local education-related tax and bond proposals. The public is angry that lottery funds have been substituted for, rather than used to enhance, general revenue funds expended on education.
Conventional wisdom gleaned from publications by groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures,(1) the National Education Association,(2) and others is that referenda have the best chance of passing where
* taxes other than property taxes are submitted for voter approval;
* the purposes to which the increased revenues will go are clearly detailed or earmarked and explained to the public;
* the proposed tax is a temporary one;
* a strong coalition consisting of the business community, education groups, and policymakers demonstrates support for the proposal and funds a campaign to support it;
* an existing tax is increased rather than a new one proposed;
* the tax is structured so as to permit more of it to be passed on, or exported, to nonresidents (i.e., tourists, commuters, out-of-town business traffic);
* the election is held "off-cycle" to yield lower voter turnout overall but proportionately higher turnout of supporters, especially those with a school connection;
* avoidance, or prevention, themes are easier sells than reactive themes; and
* preelection public opinion surveys are good predictors of how the public will vote.
New conventional wisdom, extracted from tactics used by school districts across the U.S. over the past two years to promote passage of tax and bond referenda, is that
* offering senior citizens exemptions from higher property taxes makes them less antagonistic toward tax proposals,
* including technology in proposals is a good strategy to sway voters in the computer age,
* it is often necessary to try and try again - to keep putting the same issue before the public and eventually the voters will be convinced that the money is really needed, and
* scolding the voters after they reject a proposal will shame them into voting for a tax hike proposal the next time around.
Many school districts, including Hillsborough County, have learned the hard way, however, that much of this conventional wisdom - old and new - is not very wise in reality.
A Tale of Two School Tax Votes
On September 12, 1995, 60 percent of Hillsborough County voters rejected two half-cent sales tax proposals: one earmarked to school construction and technology and the other to public safety. Each was presented as a single-purpose proposition. Just one year later, voters endorsed a 30-year half-cent sales tax to be shared by the county, its municipalities, and the school board - one multipurpose proposition. The 1996 Community Investment Tax (CIT), designed to fund public infrastructure, school construction, and a community stadium, passed by a 53 percent to 47 percent vote.
The 1995 Referenda
Preelection surveys by local newspapers predicted that the school tax (Exhibit 1) would pass easily. Those surveys projected that the strongest support would come from persons with some tie to the public school system (e.g., a child enrolled in public school), women, less-affluent individuals, recent immigrants from other states and lifetime residents, Democrats, and younger voters. School officials fully expected the off-cycle election, with nothing but the two tax proposals on the ballot, to be a low-turnout election dominated by school employees and supporters.
Election day brought a surprise. Turnout was 22.6 percent, slightly higher than projected. Exit survey data showed that 55 percent of the electorate was 50 years of age or older (29 percent was 65 and older); 54 percent earned annual household incomes of $50,000 or more; 77 percent were longtime or life-long residents; 68 percent had no children in school; of those who did have children in school, 66 percent sent them to public schools; 78 percent had no family member employed by the public school system; and 47 percent described themselves as Republicans, 23 percent as Democrats, and the rest as independents or other. (Exit data are based on polls of 962 voters; the margin of error of the reported data is [+ or -]3.5 percent.)
Supporters. As expected, the strongest support for the school tax came from those with children in public school (70 percent of whom voted for the tax), newcomers who moved to Florida within the past five years (62 percent), African-Americans (100 percent), liberals (68 percent), and Democrats (52 percent). When voters were asked to identify the major reasons why they voted for the school tax, more than 60 percent said the following:
* spending money on schools now is better than spending it on prisons later (74 percent);
* if students do not learn new technology now, they will be noncompetitive and America will suffer (73 percent);
* a sales tax is better than an increase in the property tax (71 percent);
* it is clear the money will go to schools and not to something else (64 percent);
* there simply cannot be better schools without spending more on education (63 percent);
* it is the only way to keep up with the fast rate of growth in the number of school-age children in the county (63 percent); and
* better schools are one of the best ways to attract new industry into the county and promote economic development (60 percent).
Opponents. The strongest opposition came from older voters (73 percent of those 65 and older), lower-income voters (78 percent of those earning less than $20,000 annually), longer-term residents (70 percent of those living in Florida more than 10 years), those with no children (68 percent) or grandchildren (80 percent) in school, persons widowed (74 percent) or divorced (64 percent), Hispanics (68 percent), Republicans (68 percent), and conservatives (79 percent). The most unexpected finding was that a majority of the voters who had someone in their family employed by the school system also voted against the tax, although by a slim margin (52 percent).
Among the major reasons opponents gave for voting against the school tax were the following:
* more money is not the answer, better run schools is (82 percent);
* the lottery has not paid for schools as promised (81 percent);
* taxes are already too high in Hillsborough County (80 percent);
* voter does not believe the tax will be temporary (78 percent);
* schools waste too much money; they could manage on current revenues if they would operate more efficiently (77 percent);
* voter does not have much confidence that the money will be spent for what the school board says it will fund (75 percent); and
* the money will go for construction, but buildings do not guarantee kids will learn more (63 percent).
Election Timing. The 1995 survey showed local officials that a number of conventional wisdoms were not irrefutable truths. For example, they learned the dangers of relying too heavily on pre-election surveys. Preelection surveys had grossly erred in their turnout projections, sampling from the general population rather than from registered voter lists. In addition, rather than using voter history information from the registered voter lists to identify likely voters in an off-cycle election, pollsters simply asked respondents if they were registered and how often they vote.
Survey data showed that holding the election off-cycle when turnout is traditionally lower was not a wise strategy. It resulted in a disproportionately higher percentage of older voters. These voters tend to be more antitax and have few or no direct ties to the public schools. School and public safety employees and their families did not make up nearly as large a proportion of the electorate as initially projected nor did a majority of these groups vote for the tax. A sizable portion of the electorate expressed disgust at the decision to hold a special election. To many tax opponents, it seemed like an inappropriate attempt to "stack the deck" with supporters and a waste of money. The estimated cost of the election was $250,000.
Damaging Data. The exit survey also showed local officials how damaging comparative tax rate data can be. Had both proposals to increase the sales tax passed in 1995, Hillsborough County's sales tax would have been the highest in the state (7.5 percent), a well-publicized fact touted by opponents. A clear majority of the voters found even an incremental, temporary increase in the local sales tax unacceptable.
Voters were upset by the heavy involvement of public officials, especially school administrators, in the "selling" of the tax, and they were convinced that the coalition of supporters was primarily composed of those who would most directly benefit from the new monies.
The 1996 Referendum
By September 1996, a great deal had changed. How did public (and private) officials change public opinion in such a relatively short period of time? First, they learned some valuable lessons from the 1995 election about election timing, ballot structure, and voter information and mobilization campaigns. They certainly learned that top-down campaigns aimed at reaching voters through public forums and civic association meetings were not very effective.
Second, the public had been subjected to nearly two years of intense public debate about the need to fund a new stadium to keep the Tampa Bay Buccaneers professional football team in Tampa. (A new owner purchased the team in January 1995 and immediately demanded a new stadium as a price for keeping the team in the city.) The unwillingness of key county officials to give up the fight to keep the "Bucs" convinced many voters that these officials would never quit until they found a way to pay for the stadium. The 1996 exit survey showed this quite clearly: 78 percent of those voting believed that even if the CIT failed, elected officials would have tried to find some other way to pay for a new stadium. (Exit data are based on polls of 880 voters; the margin of error of the reported data is [+ or -]3.8 percent.)
Third, circumstances that were only projections prior to the 1995 vote had come to pass by the time local elected officials - county, cities, school board, sports authority - agreed to put the CIT (Exhibit 2) before the voters for approval on a regularly scheduled primary election day. For the 1996-97 school year, two area high schools were on double sessions. The electorate had been subjected to intense media coverage of faulty, antiquated police and fire equipment. The Bucs owner had made highly publicized overtures to neighboring counties, competitors for economic development.
A television-based marketing campaign approaching half a million dollars - all privately generated - bombarded potential voters the weekend before the election with the message that the stadium was but a small portion of the total package. The final proposal, estimated to generate $2.7 billion in tax revenues over 30 years, called for 63.7 percent to be spent for public infrastructure, 25 percent for schools, and 11.3 percent for a community stadium. As a consequence, turnout and support patterns changed significantly, and the CIT passed.
Turnout in the 1996 election was 48 percent, more than double that in 1995. (See Exhibit 3 for 1995-96 comparisons of many aspects of the votes. Exhibit 4 compares the ages of supporters and opponents of both referenda.) The 1996 electorate was younger, more racially/ethnically diverse, more likely to have children in school, and less Republican, although Republicans still comprised a plurality (41 percent) of the electorate. It was in large part a "baby boomer" electorate, dominated by 30-49 year olds (53 percent), married (70 percent), living in suburbia (59 percent), affluent (50 percent with household incomes $50,000 or more), well-educated (53 percent with at least a baccalaureate college degree), and with school-age children (55 percent).
Supporters. Support for the CIT was greatest among younger voters, particularly the 30-49 year olds (63 percent); those with children in school (58 percent); the college educated (63 percent) and those with advanced graduate work (61 percent); those making $50,000 or more (60 percent); men (60 percent); ardent Bucs fans (79 percent) and frequent game-goers (86 percent); Hispanics (70 percent); and Democrats (60 percent).
The major reasons cited by at least 50 percent of those voting for the CIT were the following:
* the bulk of the money will go to schools, public safety, and infrastructure, not to the stadium (77 percent);
* more up-to-date police and firefighting equipment is needed to make the community safer (65 percent);
* a sales tax is fair and better than an increase in the property tax (64 percent); and
* it is necessary to avoid double sessions in schools (55 percent).
Opponents. Opposition to the CIT tax was most intense among voters 65 and older (62 percent), those with high school or less education (56 percent), those who home-school their children (81 percent), those who hate the Bucs (73 percent), and those who never attend Bucs games (56 percent). The major reasons for voting against the CIT cited by at least 50 percent of the respondents were the following:
[TABULAR DATA FOR EXHIBIT 3 OMITTED]
* the lottery has not paid for schools as promised, neither will this one (70 percent);
* the National Football League and its teams are holding communities hostage (69 percent);
* voter resents using schools to lure votes (69 percent);
* tax dollars should not benefit private business (66 percent);
* 30 years is not a temporary tax (64 percent);
* the Tampa Stadium was good enough for a Super Bowl (64 percent);
* resentment that elected officials pushed the tax after the community voted no one year ago (59 percent);
* too much money is spent promoting the tax by those who stand to directly benefit from it (57 percent);
* taxes are already high in Hillsborough County (56 percent);
* government needs to plan better and stop waiting until things become a crisis, then asking for a tax increase (55 percent); and
* school officials have made no real effort to improve school operations since the last vote (52 percent).
The Multipurpose Approach. "Bundling" or the multipurpose approach made a difference. Survey results show that voters would have rejected the tax in 1996 had it been split into three parts. Among supporters, 50 percent said they would not have voted for the CIT if schools had not been part of the package, 40 percent tied their support to the inclusion of funding for police and firefighters, and 9 percent linked their support exclusively to the inclusion of the Bucs. As it was, the margin of victory was a rather narrow 6 percent compared to a 20 percent margin in 1995. Other figures reveal there is a core of tax opponents and proponents, neither of which makes up a majority of the Hillsborough County electorate. Thus, any future pro-tax vote campaign will have to be aimed at the "conditional" supporters as it was in the 1996 CIT campaign.
Keys to Success: 10 Lessons
While the 1995 vote on two half-cent sales tax propositions and the 1996 Community Investment Tax vote are not truly comparable, there are some lessons to be learned from the two experiences.
Timing and Turnout. The timing of the election and turnout can drastically alter the composition of the electorate. Holding the 1995 tax votes in a stand-alone special referendum election worked counter to officials' expectations that a low turnout would bolster their supporters' proportional makeup of those who voted. This did not happen. Instead, the electorate was older and more conservative - more antitax and anti-government. Placing the tax proposition on the ballot in a regularly scheduled election - a primary election in a presidential election year - doubled turnout. The 1996 electorate had a "baby boomer" profile, more heavily dominated by 30-49 year olds, well-educated, more diverse racially/ethnically, with children in school, and more likely to be Bucs fans.
Conditional Voters. When a community has nearly equal and substantial cores of tax opponents and tax supporters, the key to success is winning over the conditional voter. Such was the case in Hillsborough County. Tax proponents engaged professional public opinion and marketing firms to help figure out who the conditional voters might be and what earmarking strategies might push them over to the "for" side. Such efforts led to the decision to place the multipurpose tax proposal before the public in 1996. Exit survey results showed that without "something for everyone," the CIT would not have passed.
Tax-support Dynamics. The multipurpose "omnibus" proposal approach may not necessarily work in every community because the tax-support dynamics may be quite different. Every community contemplating a school tax referendum must figure out the relative size of support and opposition voters. A good starting point is to examine a community's age profile.
A Demonstrated Need. Voters have to be convinced that a genuine need or crisis exists because they have heard government officials cry wolf too many times, especially with regard to the need for higher taxes. This means that prevention messages work less effectively than reactive or problem-solving messages. In Hillsborough County in 1996, two high schools were on double sessions, high-profile news stories had detailed the inadequacies of public safety equipment, and the Tampa Bay Bucs owner was talking to other Florida counties about moving the team.
Public Safety Issues. The role public safety plays in a voter's decision should not be underestimated. The exit survey results showed that public safety out-ranked schools in the specific reasons voters supported the CIT. In fact, officials promoting school tax increase referenda might do well to stress the safety dimension more. Building more schools to keep students, particularly highschool students, from going on double sessions and being released mid-day (making them available for mischief with parents at work) is an argument that might appeal to older voters who most fear becoming a crime victim.
Exhibit 4 SUPPORTERS AND OPPONENTS BY AGE 1995 AND 1996 HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY TAX VOTES Percent Voting For Percent Voting Against Age 1995 School Tax 1996 CIT 1995 School Tax 1996 CIT 18-29 53 61 47 39 30-49 59 63 41 37 50-64 29 51 71 49 65+ years 27 38 73 62 ClT = Community Investment Tax
Television and Radio Ads. To be successful, issue campaigns aimed at a large electorate have to be taken to television and radio in the same way as candidate campaigns. Television ads were a key reason for the Community Investment Tax's success. A comparison of the absentee vote patterns with election day vote patterns clearly showed how much television swayed undecided, conditional voters. (A majority of the absentee voters opposed the CIT.) Exit survey results also show that voter reasons for supporting the tax closely mirrored the ad message contents.
Responsibility for Promotion. In an era when a large portion of the electorate holds elected officials and government bureaucrats in low regard, the major responsibility for tax promotional efforts must be relegated to others. One of the mistakes local officials made in their strategies for promoting the two sales tax propositions in 1995 was to assign a high-profile role for elected officials and top administrators, especially school officials. Promoting the tax on the taxpayer's time and dollar created bad press and intensified voter opposition. Local officials learned from this. In 1996, the involvement of top-level administrators and rank-and-file public employees was restricted to after work hours.
Grassroots Support. It is important to create an image among voters that support for the tax is coming from the bottom up (i.e., the grassroots) rather than the top down (i.e., a community elite). The 1996 CIT effort relied on a wider array of grassroots community groups, such as neighborhood associations and civic clubs, than had been the case in 1995. In 1996,all contributions to CIT promotions were privately raised.
Corporate Welfare. The public is increasingly critical of public-private ventures, particularly those that benefit large corporations and/or wealthy private business owners. The backlash against Hillsborough County officials' catering to the owner of the Bucs came very close to defeating the CIT and might have done so if the only ballot issue had been a tax earmarked to a stadium. The county attempted to soften some of this opposition by restructuring an earlier agreement with the Bucs owners to assure that the community would have ownership and control of the proposed new stadium. Exit survey results show that this did move some voters into the "for" column.
Government Accountability. Strategies must be devised to counteract the public's feelings about unmet promises made in past tax or bond referenda campaigns. Throughout Florida, suspicions abound about new tax monies being used as promised by any government. This stems from state lottery monies being used in a manner different from what voters thought they had agreed to when they approved the lottery in the late 1980s. Knowing this, Hillsborough County officials built an accountability requirement into the 1996 referendum mandating that governments publish an annual report showing how the monies were spent and requiring public hearings every five years. While these accountability efforts were not among the top reasons people voted for the CIT, they did make a difference to some voters.
From Across the U.S.: New Wisdom
Other school districts have had similar experiences from their referenda efforts. A review of recent articles in School Board News, Education Week, and various newspapers confirms that proposals rarely pass the first time. Articles also show that repeating failed tactics is not advisable. School officials in South Carolina found that scaling back proposals to "the very minimal basics" was what helped a number of districts finally pass bond issues. The Beatrice, Nebraska, district ended a three-election losing streak by widely publicizing their scaling back of construction plans and costs. Voters have little sympathy for "Taj Mahal" proposals, particularly older voters who attended schools far less lavish than today's portable classrooms.
Across the U.S., analysts studying why school tax and bond proposals fail have concluded that a sizable portion of the population believes that schools are inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable. Bond opponents in the Spring, Texas, school district argued vehemently for an audit of the school district before the election. An audit of neighboring Houston Independent School District by the state comptroller had concluded that the district could save $116 million over five years if it would make some changes. Widely publicized audits and corrections of deficiencies before asking voters for more revenue are increasingly thought of as a smart move.
A number of districts have found that including large requests for technology improvements is not necessarily a compelling argument. Opponents argue that spending millions on computer equipment is wasteful because it quickly becomes obsolete. Baby-boom and younger populations - the largest portion of voting age population - are the biggest computer users and the most likely to know first hand how quickly computer equipment and software becomes dated.
School districts trying to pass bond proposals also have found out that older voters cannot necessarily be "bribed" into voting for proposals by granting them an exemption from any property tax rate increases associated with bond financing. Surveys of senior citizens residing in the Houston Independent School District found high levels of opposition among this age group despite the promised exemption.
Like Hillsborough County, a number of other districts have discovered the utility and necessity of engaging the assistance of professional campaign consultants. In Beatrice, Nebraska, and elsewhere, school officials are recognizing that a bond or tax referendum is very political and are involving dedicated people who understand political campaigns.
The new wisdom bids school district officials to understand the importance of the media, especially the electronic media, in reaching the average voter. The working-age population increasingly relies more on television and radio to keep them informed.
Perhaps the biggest mistake a school district can make is to be unaware of its population composition. One scholar who studies school districts has found that many school officials "still make the mistake of crafting a generic message for all voters [when] victory depends upon identifying the various publics in the community and developing a separate, well-crafted message designed to appeal to each group."(3) In a growing number of school districts across the U.S., these divergent publics are age-defined. School districts that ignore age demographics in formulating tax and bond referenda strategies in the future do so at their own peril.
BALLOT STRUCTURE FOR SEPTEMBER 12, 1995, REFERENDA (Two Separate Single-issue Propositions)
Half-cent Sales Tax for School Construction, Renovation, and Purchase of Technology Equipment
Shall a surtax of one half-cent (.5 cents) be assessed on sales for a period of 10 years beginning December 1, 1995, in order to fund construction, reconstruction, renovation, land acquisition, retro-fitting, and the purchase of technology equipment, including computers and software, for Hillsborough County Public Schools?
Criminal Justice and Public Safety 36-Month Half-cent Sales Tax
Shall Hillsborough County levy a half-cent sales tax for 36 months to be shared with the municipalities to finance facilities and equipment for jails, police, sheriff, fire, courts, medical examiner, juvenile justice, crime prevention, emergency preparedness, emergency medical services, and court and law enforcement communications exclusively; unless disaster or emergency is declared pursuant to Ordinance 95-15?
BALLOT STRUCTURE FOR SEPTEMBER 3, 1996 REFERENDUM (One Multipurpose [Omnibus] Proposition)
Community Investment 30-Year Half-cent Sales Tax
Shall Hillsborough County levy a half-cent sales for 30 years to be shared with the municipalities and the school board to finance infrastructure for jails, police and sheriff's equipment, fire stations, emergency vehicles, school construction, a community stadium, transportation improvements, libraries, parks, trails, stormwater improvements, and public facilities?
1 Terry N. Whitney, Voters and School Finance: The Impact of Public Opinion (Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures, 1993).
2 National Education Association, Tax Options for States Needing More School Revenue (Washington, DC: NEA, 1994).
3 Del Stover, "It's Taking More Work to Get School Bonds Passed," School Board News, July 23, 1996, pp. 1, 8.
GFOA member SUSAN A. MACMANUS is professor of public administration and political science in the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida, Tampa (USF), who regularly surveys public officials and voters about finance-related matters. She currently is gathering information about school tax and bond referenda across the U.S. Send information to her at USF, 4202 E. Fowler Avenue, SOC 107, Tampa, FL 33620 or call her at 813/949-0320. The author wishes to thank Dottie Gray of the National School Boards Association, Kerry White of Education Week, and Ilene Frank of the USF library for assistance in gathering materials for this article. The author also thanks the sponsors of the exit polls: The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee during the 1995 election and the St. Petersburg Times and Fox 13 Eyewitness News (Tampa) during the 1996 election.
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|Author:||MacManus, Susan A.|
|Publication:||Government Finance Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1997|
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