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Public policy organization questions governor's veto of bond election bill

Sun Advocate reporter

Gov. Olene Walker has vetoed a bill designed to require local governmental entities to conduct bond elections in June or November.

The intent of Senate Bill 115 was simple: increase voter turnout by requiring local governmental entities to schedule bond elections in November or on the fourth Tuesday in June, noted the Utah Taxpayers Association.

The fourth Tuesday in June is frequently a primary election date in Utah.

Under current law, local governments can conduct bond elections in February, May and August, continued the independent public policy organization.

Voter turnout for the special elections is typically 10 percent or less, maximizing the impact government employees and special interests have on the outcomes.

And local governmental entities, especially Utah's public school districts, have traditionally avoided including bonding matters on general election ballots, pointed out the taxpayers association.

Since 1993, Utah school districts have conducted 11 special elections for large bonds, pointed out the taxpayers association.

All of the bonds exceeded $50 million and many topped the $100 million mark.

But none of the school districts scheduled the bond elections in November.

Opponents of SB-115 have argued that local governments need maximum bond election flexibility in order to adequately address budget concerns, explained the independent public policy organization.

However, since the bonds typically fund capital needs anticipated years in advance, allowing local governments to schedule elections twice a year should provide sufficient flexibility.

Opponents of SB-115 have also contended that local governments need to be able to conduct bond elections at various times of the year in order to take advantage of low interest rates, added the association.

Taking advantage of low rates is in the best interest of Utah taxpayers. But local governments cannot accurately time short-term fluctuations due to the uncertainty of interest changes and the inherent time lags associated with the bond approval and issuance process, indicated the independent public policy watchdog.

In recent years, school districts at locations across Utah have sought voter approval for large bonds issued incrementally during extended periods of time, pointed out the organization.

In some cases, the bonds are implemented for up to 10 years after local governments have gained voter approval.

Interest rates are determined when the bonds are actually issued, not when the elections take place, pointed out the taxpayers association.

An analysis of rates and school district bonds in the last 10 years found no correlation between short-term fluctuations and election timing.

Despite the fact that taxpayers are accustomed to voting in November, the analysis indicated that school districts have avoided the general election ballots, particularly for large bonds, no matter what the interest rates are doing.

In the 2004 general election, Utahns will select a governor, a United States senator, a U.S. congressman and state legislators. Voter turnout at the 2004 polls will be at least five times higher than the typical February special bond election.

State law requires voter approval of general obligation bonds and local governments should conduct the elections when turnout is highest at the polls, maintained the Utah Taxpayers Association.

November is the ideal time to permit Utahns to approve or reject proposals that will increase property taxes, concluded the independent organization.

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