Editorial: Referendum would be unncessary measure
Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 20:10
On Election Day, in addition to the hotly contested Presidential and Senatorial races on the ballot, voters in several towns in Connecticut will not only be choosing between candidates but will also consider a referendum that makes amendments to their town’s charter. These voters will have the opportunity to decide whether their town’s annual budget will be automatically submitted to a direct popular referendum or will continue to be approved through a town-meeting structure. Though this particular question certainly has not received the same publicity and scrutiny as the other races being contested one week from today, it has a substantial relevance to Connecticut’s style of local government and to the fiscal health of its towns and cities.
Most municipalities in Connecticut as well as in New England employ a centuries-old process of grassroots democracy known as the town meeting in which an assembled body of citizens makes a collective decision on a legislative question. It is primarily used in this state, at the present day, both to ensure citizen's input on a town budget and set out a process for the budget’s approval. As the system currently operates in most towns, if enough citizens turn out to the spring budget meeting and if enough citizens vote to approve the budget, then it will be adopted. If the turnout is not sufficient or if support for the budget is lacking, it will then be the subject of a town-wide referendum.
The proposals for an automatic budget referendum would, we believe, unnecessarily bypass this governmental tradition and make the process of municipal governance far more arduous than it needs to be. The rationale behind these proposals is simple: a small, highly informed elite should not determine the taxes incurred by and services provided to the rest of the people of a town. In times of economic hardship, this is understandable. However, a town’s budget should also not be the victim of an indiscriminate anti-tax mentality that greatly encumbers municipalities’ honest needs to raise revenue. There is, by contrast, a real value in a deliberative town meeting that serves to inform taxpayers before they vote to determine the fiscal future of a municipality. Furthermore, these measures may even have the effect of imperiling the fiscal security of Connecticut towns. For each automatic referendum a town must hold, it must hire poll-workers, print ballots and run polling stations for a full fourteen hours, all at considerable expense to the taxpayer. We fear that if towns adopt automatic budget referendum amendments to their charters, they will find it difficult to placate an anti-tax public bent on cutting government down to the bone and it may take several arduous referenda to pass a budget.
Ballot questions take a little more effort to vote on – they require that you come to the voting booth with the necessary information and judgment to be able to decipher and decide the question. On a question with such immediate relevance to our hometowns’ fiscal security, we can’t afford not to.