Gov. Roy Cooper recently released his proposal for the state’s 2021-2022 budget, which included pay raises for public school teachers, a $15 minimum wage for other public school employees and a raise for all other state-funded employees. It would also put a bond referendum on the ballot this fall for $4.7 billion to fund education, parks and other projects.
As usual for Gov. Cooper’s budget proposals, the leaders of the General Assembly pushed back, claiming the budget spends too much and more prudence is needed in budgeting. Cooper’s proposed bond could alter the dynamic of the discussion and also present an alternative for the use of state referenda, which have previously been used to push controversial measures like voter ID and 2012’s ban on gay marriage — a provision that lingers in our state constitution despite legalization at the national level.
This bond proposal would directly benefit NC State if proposed and passed, while also providing funds to improve the state as a whole. While spending more money may necessitate higher taxes, there is no reason voters shouldn’t have the right to choose whether to accept those costs. Legislative leaders should support a ballot item like Cooper’s proposal, which could take the most controversial aspect of the current budget out of their hands and enable compromise on less contentious issues, lest they risk a repeat of 2019, when no comprehensive budget was passed.
Referendums are something of a mixed bag: While theoretically, the most democratic possible way to consider legislation, in practice the way they are structured and timed can turn them into political tools. Consider “Amendment 1,” which enshrined homophobia in our state’s constitution after it passed with 61% of the vote. This unusually strong showing in our relatively closely-divided state likely stems from the timing of the election, which took place during a presidential primary where only Republicans were selecting a candidate, Democrats having then-President Barack Obama as their standard-bearer. With primaries already having generally low turnout, it’s not surprising that only 35% of voters showed up in that election.
By contrast, local governments routinely use referendums to gauge public support for bonds, including Raleigh’s 2020 Affordable Housing Bond and Wake County’s trio of 2018 bonds to fund public schools, parks and community colleges. Cooper’s proposal clearly mirrors these historically low-stakes and straightforward measures, but given our polarized state environment, it’s important to take some precautions to prevent it from becoming overly partisan, which the state legislature can assist with.
Ultimately, the people should be able to decide if they are content to spend more money (and potentially pay more in taxes) to support a cause. This referendum could easily be split into multiple ballot questions to avoid accusations of hostage-taking. A rough impact to citizens’ tax burdens could be included in the language of the question. Unlike more complicated questions about public policy — such as the several referendums proposed in 2018, including the voter ID provision — an up or down bond proposal is easily comprehensible and difficult to spin.
Working together, the legislature and Gov. Cooper should more easily be able to craft a fair ballot question than overcome their stark differences on answering that question. Putting to the people a provision which causes severe gridlock should be a more normalized solution for situations where the stakes are abundantly clear. Obviously, ordinary citizens shouldn’t be expected to read and vote on a several-page appropriations bill, but allowing more democratic input on simple and broad pieces of legislation could promote faith in government and prevent big, contentious issues from blocking areas of broad agreement. A properly-worded referendum would fit this category, and ensure North Carolina’s budget priorities aren’t needlessly held up by partisan bickering, a goal both parties should endorse.