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Sunday, February 03, 2013

Your Tax Dollars, My Overtime

As a political and elections "insider" sometimes I forget how much I know and I blow past basic explanations. Time to step back and answer one of the most common questions I'm hearing these days: "why so many elections?"

We vote Tuesday on the Iowa City School District's revenue purpose statement. Just 28 days later, we will vote again, in the special election to replace Sally Stutsman on the Board of Supervisors. Democrat Terry Dahms will face a Republican to be named on Wednesday night, most likely John Etheredge, who ran as an independent last fall.

All signs are that the THIRD election of the year will be on May 7, as the county makes another attempt to pass a revised justice center proposal, which won 56% support in November but needed a 60% super majority.

Common sense would indicate that you could put a couple of these things or even all three together. But common sense is not necessarily the law.

Under Iowa election law, no non-school election can ever for any reason be combined with a school election. Doesn't really matter why - "it's the law" ends the practical conversation - but the reasoning seems to be that school districts and precincts have different boundaries than cities, townships and regular precincts.

And don't get me started on school district boundaries, which are confusing even to redistricting consultant Jerry Mandering. They've got more notches and diversions than the Norwegian coastline, and they're all based on where Grandma and Grandpa wanted to send the kids to school in 1960, when the old township-based school system consolidated into districts.

(If you think that's confusing, can you imagine the logistical difficulties of breaking up a school district? Who would own which schools? Who would inherit which share of debt? Who would draw the line? How would you calculate all the real estate and tax implications?)

So nothing gets combined with Tuesday's school vote. Fine. What about the other two?

May 7 is the earliest date legally available for Justice Center 2. Two reasons: since a similar issue failed to pass in November, the county has to wait at least six months to try again. That pushes things back to May.

Also, under a relatively recent change to state law, governments are limited as to which dates they can place issues on the ballot. This was a change auditors wanted a few years back; large counties sometimes had a dozen election days a year. In the summer of 2004, Johnson County had five elections between May and September. Five of the smaller cities had cable franchise issues, but didn't coordinate the dates. So three additional dates on top of the regular June primary and September school board election.

That couldn't happen now. Current law limits ballot measures to eight dates. This year schools get February, April, and June, or can place issues on their regular September ballot. Cities and counties get March, May and August, or could use the regular November city election.

Could the school district have waited till September? Yeah, but they originally wanted to do this last December, and their argument is they need to secure the funding stream before summer construction. Could the county wait till November? Maybe, but financing is an issue there too as they hope to deal with the issue during the present fiscal year and while last fall's discussion is still fresh in people's minds.

One kind of election isn't limited to those eight dates - an election to fill a vacant office. The law envisions that as sort of an emergency, as the public is under-represented or represented by an appointee. (All other things being equal, which they aren't always, electing > appointing.)  The fastest elections are vacancies during the legislative session, which can go from vacancy to seating the successor as fast as three weeks.

The supervisor vacancy isn't seen as that urgent, but the law still says an election must be conducted at the "soonest possible date." And four months - from Sally Stutsman's Jan. 2 resignation to the May 7 justice center date - doesn't pass the "soonest possible" sniff test. February was both TOO soon, as parties needed time to nominate candidates, and was in conflict with that un-combinable school vote.

Sure, someone could have been appointed. But last time that happened, when Larry Meyers died and Janelle Rettig was named, the Republicans petitioned for a special election (which Rettig won in a landslide). So even if the deciders had decided to skip an election, it could have and probably would have happened anyway.

So we are in the situation we are in. You can make a case for changing the law, even if it's too late for our county this year, but that's a heavy lift. It took decades of effort by auditors, against counter-efforts by the school board association, to get the Legislature to change school elections from every year to odd years only.

And that was in an era of united trifecta government. The reality of election law this session is a standoff. The House won't pass anything, even an innocuous clean-up bill endorsed by 99 auditors, without amending it to include photo ID. (Doesn't help that House speaker Kraig Paulsen can't control his own caucus. Even if he got a non-controversial bill out of committee onto the floor, someone would amend it.) And the Senate won't take up anything that does include ID.

So the status quo stays. Vote often and early, we say: vote early tomorrow and we'll see you again next month.

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