December 14, 2019 Reading Time: 5 minutes

It seems rather strange that in a putative democracy a handful of people can legally, if figuratively, reach into the pockets of their neighbors but it happens all the time all across America via municipal bond ballot measures. 

The main problem is that the measures “pass” if the majority of those who actually vote are in favor, even if hardly anyone votes. That leads to abuses. We should change the rules and mandate that bond/tax measures must obtain the affirmative approval of over 50 percent of eligible voters, not just those with sufficient incentive, education, and information to vote.

In most areas of our lives, no means no in the sense that no decision defaults to no action. You do not have to actively dislike the advertisement of a stationary bike company to avoid buying one of its products, you can vote “no” by not taking steps to purchase one. Heck, you may even approve of its ad but that does not give the manufacturer the right to drop ship one of its high-tech torture machines to your house and dock your checking account in exchange.

The same goes for physical intimacy. A stranger does not get to lawfully have sex with you because you did not actively swipe left on his or her Tinder profile. And Tinder does not get to establish a Tinder profile for you because you did not explicitly tell it not to. Wells Fargo found that out the hard way (though arguably not hard enough).

The need to obtain explicit consent before taking somebody else’s money (or bodily fluids) is one of the key remaining features of liberty. Without it, life begins to look a lot like slavery or authoritarianism.

But the rules change when the compulsory monopoly we call government makes the rules. The original impetus behind municipal bond measures was the notion that voters need to explicitly accept the tax increases needed to service the bonds. No taxation without representation and all that. When most people voted, and where taxpayers and voters were roughly the same people, bond ballot measures approximated consent. (Why fifty percent is often considered the best threshold is another matter, but I will stipulate it here.)

Statewide bond measures pass about four out of five times. Local ones appear to pass at the same rate, even at the 55 percent threshold established in California. And issuers who fail to gain approval can try again year after year, unlike in corporate proxy resolutions where shareholders are banned from reintroducing resolutions that fail to garner sufficient votes. (The SEC, incidentally, wants to raise those thresholds.)

It is a minor miracle when voters in a town like Monument, Colorado repeatedly put the kibosh on bond measures because the issuer, often a school district, is a concentrated interest with the budget authority to hire consultants who appear to make scientific, objective cases for the “necessity” of the bond. Some of those consultants even conduct market research studies designed to help the issuer use words and arguments most likely to sway voters to click “yes” come election day. Opponents are typically individuals with jobs, families, and lives.

Unlike in the commercial sector, municipal bond issuers do not need to persuade people to their cause, they just need to create enough uncertainty, confusion, or complexity to induce most voters to abstain. While often rational in other contexts, inaction on bond measures often means tax increases because the denominator for passage, regardless of the threshold, is always the number of people who actually voted on the measure rather than the number of registered voters.

Issuers know that and use it to their advantage. A suburb of Sioux Falls, South Dakota recently passed a bond measure 1,085 to 129. That seems like a mandate except 14,700 people were eligible to vote on the measure, which went up for vote on 10 September, a time when most East River South Dakotans are busy settling their kids in school, hanging tree stands, and “gettin’ the beans in” (soybeans of course). In other words, only about 1 in 15 people explicitly approved of the bond measure but the outcome is somehow counted “democratic.” (I don’t live in that town, incidentally, and the measure did not raise taxes but merely did not lower them as a previous bond recently matured.) 

Other issuers put their measures up in November but only in odd-numbered years, when voter turnout is even lower than during even-numbered years. Often, public discussion of bond measures is muted because debate might draw out voters, which issuers want to avoid because when turnouts are low measures can be won simply by mobilizing teachers and naive statists.

In response to those obvious problems, some have called for minor reforms, like mandating that all municipal bond measures come up for vote on regular election days in even-numbered years. While that would be an improvement, it misses the main point, that no (action) should always mean no (money or booty). In other words, passage of anything authorizing use of the coercive power of the state to take citizens’ money should require the assent of fifty percent plus of eligible voters, not those who turned out at the polls.

When I proposed this recently at a meeting of the South Dakota chapter of Americans For Prosperity, someone immediately objected “but then no bond measure would ever pass!” “Exactly,” was my response. But of course truly important bond measures would pass, after mature consideration and extensive public debate clarified the issues at stake.

Consider again Monument, which sits on the Front Range betwixt Denver and Colorado Springs. Traditionally, taxes and public spending there were low so it attracted childless singles and older couples. Recently, younger couples with children began moving in because it was relatively cheap and improvements on I-25 promise to reduce commute times to both metropoles. Once ensconced, though, those couples began demanding more and better schools, even though that would mean higher taxes and, ceteris paribus, lower real estate values via what economists call tax capitalization.

I do not live in Monument either and would not presume to tell its residents what type of community they should try to create. But I do believe that a nation that purports to be a democracy should encourage citizens to debate the merits of proposals openly and to have to gain explicit approval for taxes, not a bare majority of a few percent of eligible voters in an inconvenient, secretive ballot. Robust debates could raise awareness of charter schools or maybe signal to parents with young children that they should live elsewhere. Or maybe they would lead to even more financial support for public schools. At the very least, full public discussion might expose the exorbitant fees that many municipalities now pay to consultants and issuers. The point is that to win approval, issuers would have to make a case and not just slide in under the radar.

Yes, voters could turn out to defeat bond measures, as they sometimes do, but the burden of proof should fall on the issuer, especially when public school districts seek funding because they have, with few exceptions, failed to create the type of citizens who vote. NGOs like iCivics are trying to improve civics education but the real problem, especially when it comes to bond and tax issues, is the failure of public schools to teach the basic principles of economics and public finance. 

Without that background, most people do not feel comfortable voting on complex bond issues. So, as behavioral finance theory predicts, many abstain and the issuers win.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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