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Voters could set school referendum record with $1.4B on ballot Tuesday.

Byline: Nate Beck,

Wisconsin voters will have a chance on Tuesday to seta record for school referendum spending in 2018, with $1.4 billion worth of requests on the ballot.

Combined with the $648.1 million worth of referendum spending that was approved in Wisconsin this spring, the election on Tuesday will give state voters an opportunity to approve more than $2 billion worth of spending on school construction projects and operating costs this year. That would exceed the record amount of $1.7 billion, which was set in 2016.

Although many of the referendums that are up for a vote on Tuesday would pay for new building projects, others are to raise money for things like operating expenses. Of the 61 proposals on the ballot statewide, 41 are for construction-related projects, according to a JobTrac analysis.

This banner year for school spending is not without its critics. At least one prominent lawmaker has signaled his intention to introduce legislation meant to restrict the use of referendums and require competitive bidding for school construction projects.Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville,who has introduced a number of bills aimed at further regulating school referendums, has questioned many construction companies' reliance onso-called pre-referendum services to encourage local voters to approve schools' spending requests.

A campaign to protect the status quo is already afoot. Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker John Gard, a lobbyist for various construction interests, has registered himself with the state as a lobbyist for an organization called the Wisconsin Construction Group, which advocates for "school construction and school referendums."

School referendums have become more in recent years, a trend that has accelerated as the revenue limits the state places on local governments' ability to raise property taxes have cramped school districts' plans to pay for new capital projects. A report released in early October by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that even as an increasing number of school districts are relying on school referendums to pay for building projects, voters are also approving referendums at higher rates. In 2016, 79 percent of the school referendums that were on the ballot went on to win approval.

The blame for the increased use of referendums can't be laid entirely on property-tax limits. It's also linked to the country's stronger economy, the policy forum's report found. And rural school districts are turning to school referendums more and more as they lose operating revenue as a result of declining student enrollment.

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Publication:The Daily Reporter
Date:Nov 5, 2018
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