FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT/Tips on passing a bond referendum
Local officials are confronted with capital improvement needs – building new schools, repairing aging sewerage treatment plants or expanding the park system – that require passage of bond referenda. Why do some places make it look easy, routinely passing referenda for millions of dollars, while others watch bond proposals get defeated? Although there is no magic to winning bond measures, there are a number of do’s and don’ts that can greatly increase the likelihood of success.
Do start early. Governments should launch bond campaigns at least a year
before the vote. They need time to build well-rounded coalitions, gather information, poll residents, get ballot questions before voters and communicate with the public.
Do build a wide-ranging coalition of support. Winning coalitions call on local leaders, including the business community, nonprofits and neighborhood groups. Representatives of those groups can enhance the government’s public communication, provide insight into polling and assist in fundraising.
Do hit the law books. Organizers should know the exact ballot language requirements,the necessary steps for getting on the ballot and the process for obtaining approval of a ballot question. Finally, the bond should not exceed the limit on the total level of bonding in the city/county.
Do take a history lesson. To understand how potential bond measures may fare, it is important to know how recent fiscal measures – both bonds and tax increases – have done at the ballot box. Obtaining election results of statewide bond measures from the secretary of state’s office can show how each community voted.
Do take polls. Political pollsters can determine what projects voters are interested in; how much they are willing to pay per household; and what messages they find compelling by testing legally permissible sample ballot questions.
Don’t ignore what voters say they want. In some cases, the interests that resonate most strongly with voters diverge from those of the initiators of the bond measure. Winning measures correspond to voters’ highest priorities.
Don’t ask for too much money. It is always better to win a $10 million bond than to lose a $20 million bond. If the polls do not support a big bond, it should not be placed on the ballot.
Don’t bank on a good campaign saving a bad measure. Running a winning campaign is laborious and expensive, considering media buys, printing and grassroots organizing. Campaigns cannot make up for poorly conceived measures that ignore residents’ interests or ask for too much money.
The Safe Neighborhoods Park Act in Dade County (Miami), Fla., illustrates a successful bond measure. In November 1996, 67 percent of Dade County voters approved the $200 million bond for parks and recreation – remarkable in a county where voters had previously rejected several high-profile bond measures.
Nearly two years in the making, the act was the brainchild of a coalition that included local government and parks representatives, senior citizens, and neighborhood and crime-prevention organizations. Public opinion polling highlighted two major voter priorities: reducing crime among juveniles (through recreation) and protecting quality of life by preserving natural areas as open space.
Voters were more likely to support a measure if it had safeguards to ensure the money was properly spent and if the cost per household remained below $8.50 ($200 million total). Dade County’s bond referendum was successful because organizers planned ahead, researched and heeded the poll results.