With school budgets stretched tighter these days than bicycle shorts on a rhinoceros, local tax referenda and bond issues are becoming increasingly pivotal ways for educators to raise money for ed-tech programs and other key initiatives.
Tax elections to benefit local schools and colleges are often viewed as “low-interest” elections. These elections don’t make the national news, and the results from school bond elections or local tax measures aren’t usually reported on the front page of newspapers or on the evening TV news. But whether or not citizens vote to approve these measures more directly affects the quality of our lives and our communities than elections for senators or presidents.
Over the past ten years, my company has successfully managed more than 150 local tax elections–almost all requiring 67-percent approval rates–that have generated more than $15 billion in tax revenue for schools and colleges, hospitals, parks, libraries, museums, zoos, and public-transit systems.
The lessons I learned while managing these campaigns became the nucleus of my book Sidewalk Strategies: Seven Winning Steps for Candidates, Causes, and Communities. In brief, these seven strategies are:
1. Knowing why you want to win. Why do you need to win? How will the community be better if you win? Wanting or needing more money is one thing, being able to articulate why the money is needed is another.
2. Developing discipline. Success comes from hard work over long periods of time. Do you have it in you to be successful and to put in effort day after day after day? Are you motivated to spend your time working while others are playing? Tax elections are won by convincing people that it is in their interest to tax themselves. To do so, you must be able to talk to people one on one. This takes discipline and hard work.
3. Knowing how to win. Wanting to win is a start, but you have to know how to win if you are going to succeed. How many votes will it take to win? Have you developed a strategy for identifying the people you’ll need to have vote for your effort? Does your measure make sense to voters who don’t have school-aged children?
4. Listening. Voters don’t want elected officials to tell them anything. Voters want to tell elected officials what they want. Have you listened to the public before you put your measure on the ballot?
5. Defining the debate. Is your message simple and clear? Voters will spend just a few moments considering whether to vote yes or no. Are your needs clear and compelling enough to convince someone to vote yes?
6. Investing in people. Tax elections are rarely won through the media or through advertising. People are the secret weapon in tax elections. How do you find good people who are willing to work, and how can you create an environment where they can be effective?
7. The willingness to keep working, win or lose. Can you deal with failure and setbacks? What did you learn? Do you have the ability to keep going when things are tough? How do you stay positive in the face of disappointments?
Passing a tax measure: Some common-sense strategies
The most important lesson in passing tax measures is to always remember it is the public’s money. People work hard for their money, and asking them to part with some of it through increased taxes should only happen after all other revenue sources have been exhausted. Before they will support a tax increase, people expect public officials to have done their best to eliminate waste, and the projects and programs that are not essential. Rarely will the public be willing to support everything that needs funding; people have to be convinced that the money is really needed and there is no other way to fund these projects or programs.
At the same time, while you don’t want to be greedy, you also don’t want to be overly cautious. Some elected officials are opposed to putting any measure on the ballot that will increase people’s taxes. But inaction doesn’t solve problems, and allowing people to vote for or against tax increases–and to approve or reject taxes for specific purposes–is one of the most basic manifestations of democracy.
As you consider placing a tax measure on the ballot, keep in mind the following important strategies:
Articulate a clear plan. Winning tax elections starts with developing a plan for what you want to accomplish with the additional revenue, and talking about it in language that people can understand. Avoid “government-speak,” acronyms, and technical terms. Make sure that your “needs” are reasonable, clear, and understandable. If you can’t state simply why you need the money, you won’t get any.
Make tough decisions. Try to find other sources of money before asking the public to increase their taxes. Make cuts, eliminate waste, and dispense with needless programs. Make priorities. Provide the public with evidence that you are making sound decisions before asking them for money.
Understand who votes. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “We in America do not have government by the majority; we have government by the majority who participate.” Likely voters generally are older and more conservative than the population at large and might not even benefit directly from the tax you are asking them to support. Your plan must still make sense to them.
Choose the election date carefully. Determine when you want to be on the ballot. Time is your greatest ally and can be your biggest enemy if you waste it. Before placing a measure on the ballot, determine which election provides the most opportunity for success.
Don’t go it alone. Hire the consulting resources you need. Managing election campaigns has become increasingly complicated and expensive, and there are numerous consulting firms offering their services.
Common mistakes to avoid
There are any number of factors that can affect the ultimate outcome of an election, but the ones we most frequently encounter are:
Lack of strong, committed leadership. If the leaders of the organization aren’t completely and totally behind the measure–and are not willing to sacrifice time and effort for passage–it is unlikely that the measure will pass. Leadership starts at the top.
“Let’s do it ourselves.” In a desire to save money, or out of sheer arrogance, many districts try to pass the tax measure without outside help. While noble, these efforts generally lack sophistication on setting tax rates, developing a proposal the public will support, and targeting voters. There is a lot of help and expertise available. Use it! The cost of procuring expert help is minimal when compared with the cost of losing an election and having to do it all over again.
“Give us the money first, then we’ll develop the plan.” As bizarre as it sounds, I have heard this on many occasions. Not wanting to invest time or money in developing a plan, some school districts will put a measure on the ballot first, hoping for passage–after which they promise to develop a specific plan. They usually fail.
Inability to eliminate projects or programs that are not absolutely necessary. A case could be made for almost any improvement in schools or projects that serve the public. Rest assured that there is a built-in interest group that wants something–but the public should not be asked to support a wish list of projects. Paring down the needs list (and consequently the tax) to the essentials helps to build credibility and support from the public.
Not taking time to plan well or build support. No one would think of building a house without having solid plans and building a foundation first. Yet, many public agencies put tax measures on the ballot without proper preparation. We normally advise our clients to take at least six months to a year to develop a plan and to build support before they even place a measure on the ballot.
Not raising sufficient resources to be able to campaign effectively. No public funds can be used to convince voters to raise their taxes. All campaign funds need to be raised privately from people and organizations who support the ballot measure. Unfortunately, campaigns require financial resources that should be identified before the measure is placed on the ballot.
Insufficient volunteer commitment. Unlike other types of elections that are won primarily in the media or through paid advertising of one variety or another, tax measures usually require a strong commitment from volunteers who are able to convince neighbors to raise their taxes. Volunteers also are able to put a human face on the request for funds and articulate to skeptical voters why the tax measure is essential.
Campaigning on behalf of the public agency, as opposed to specific projects or constituents the tax will benefit. Voters are less likely to support an additional tax that benefits a public agency–such as a school district–than they are to support proposals that can be shown to benefit the community. A “district” is merely another government agency. It is far better to articulate the specific programs or projects the tax will benefit–and the learning outcomes these are intended to produce–than talk about the agency that will administer the money.
One of the nation’s leading political strategists, Larry Tramutola and his company (http://www.tramutola.com) are responsible for generating about $15 billion through tax measures passed for schools, colleges, libraries, hospitals, and other public entities. To date, his firm has managed more than 400 successful campaigns across California alone, including 130 tax measures with a 95-percent success rate.