Good Showing for Higher Ed Ballot Measures

Despite recent downturn in U.S. economy, voters show some support for higher ed, approving key bond measures for community colleges -- and reject a Massachusetts tax plan that would have devastated public colleges.

November 5, 2008

With the economy in a downward spiral, voters in states across the country still showed some tolerance Tuesday for funding higher education projects.

Higher education officials in Massachusetts breathed a collective sigh of relief last night to find that their state will maintain its income tax. A rejected ballot measure, brought by two former Libertarian candidates for state and national offices, would have cut the income tax for 2009 and completely eliminated it in 2010. Higher education officials throughout the state expressed concern about the measure and the possibility that it might pass, especially considering a similar proposed revocation of the income tax in 2002 received almost 45 percent of the vote. This time, however, the vote was nowhere near as close.

“We knew public higher ed would have been decimated had this measure passed,” said Donnie McGee, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, the National Education Association-affiliated union for two-year faculty members and other professional staff. “We would have had to close campuses and the quality of our system would have been questionable. Through this campaign, we’ve learned that we’ve got to be vigilant and come to the legislature to support higher education in our state.”

Fred Clark, chairman of the state board of higher education, expressed a similar sentiment but said public higher education in Massachusetts still has concerns about the future, given that the state ranks 46th in the country in per-capita spending on postsecondary students. Still, Clark was pleased with the defeat of the measure and said it probably passed because 1 in 6 adults are enrolled in public higher education in the state.

While several ballot measures supported by higher education officials were rejected, voters approved bond referendums, state lottery and gambling measures that promise to fund capital projects, scholarships and other programs.

Stephen Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, said he was not surprised to see voters back important initiatives.

“As the late Tip O’Neill said, all politics is local. If a bond issue is well constituted with the proper groundwork laid with the key constituencies, the chances of passage are much improved,” Katsinas said.

Major bond initiatives in New Mexico, for instance, appeared cleared for passage Tuesday. By midnight, 57 percent of voters -- with 49 percent of precincts reporting -- had approved a $140.1 million bond, which would fund higher education construction projects across the state. The largest project funded by Bond D will be a $19 million arts complex for New Mexico State University.

Also in New Mexico, voters were poised to approve Bond C, which would provide $57.9 million for health facilities across New Mexico, including $40.5 million for colleges and universities. The largest project will be $17 million for a University of New Mexico cancer research and treatment center.

Both New Mexico bonds will be funded by a property tax, and a simple majority was required for passage.

A major proposal in Florida, which would have potentially introduced a new funding stream into the community college system, failed to garner voters’ support. The Constitutional Amendment, which required a 60 percent "super majority," would have given counties the authority to levy a local-option sales tax to supplement state funding for community colleges. Community colleges in Florida do not receive any local support, and instead draw on state revenues, student fees and federal funds.

Support for the Florida measure was mixed among colleges prior to the vote, and larger college districts that were thought to have the most to gain were the key proponents. The amendment had key support from Miami Dade College, for instance, but little vocal support from some of the more rural areas of the state.

“I will say that clearly the message was not championed in other parts of the state as strongly as it was in Miami Dade county," said Juan Mendieta, a spokesman for Miami Dade College. “Hopefully it’s raised awareness and that's one of the positive things we take from it.”

Other referendums and ballot measures related to higher education include the following:

Arizona :

  • Voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that prohibits the state from creating any tax on the sale or transfer of property. Currently, there are no such measures in the state. The referendum, titled “Protect Our Homes,” was opposed by a number of Arizona higher education officials who worried the outright ban could limit funding streams for state colleges and universities in the future.


  • Voters approved a ballot measure which will create a state-wide lottery whose profits will go toward the creation of two- and four-year scholarships.
  • A $111 million bond for Mohave Community College remained undecided as of early Wednesday morning. The bond would be funded by a property tax and requires a simply majority for passage. Working adults make up most of the two-year college's student body, and the funds would be used in part to provide child care services, according to a recent column written by Michael Kearns, the college's chancellor.


  • A $3.5 billion bond measure, which will provide funding for the Los Angeles Community College District, appears headed for approval by voters. Requiring a 55 percent majority for passage and funded by a property tax, Measure J will provide funds to improve classrooms and laboratories for the purposes of training nurses, police and firefighters, among other goals. The money will not, however, be used for administrators’ salaries, according to the measure that appeared on the ballot. With 55 percent of votes counted, the measure appears to be well above the super-majority required.
  • Voters in Visalia and Tulare approved Measures I and J, respectively; both are bonds to fund the College of the Sequoias. Measure I is a $28 million bond to pay for expansion projects at the community college's main campus in Visalia, and Measure J is a $60 million bond to create a new campus in Tulare. Each required the approval of at least 55 percent of voters.
  • Northern California voters approved a $475 million bond referendum -- one of the largest in the country -- for the Los Rios Community College District, a four-campus system serving the greater Sacramento area. The bond, which received 57 percent of the vote, will provide funds for the repair, renovation and construction of education facilities. The district is already at capacity, according to an election fact sheet it distributed, and would not be able to handle the expected growth from 88,000 to 120,000 students in the next eight years without the passage of this measure to fund expansion.


  • Voters rejected Amendment 58, which would have eliminated a subsidy for oil and gas companies and directed 60 percent of those funds toward college scholarships. A simple majority was required for passage of the amendment, which supporters said would end $300 million in industry subsidies and provide annual scholarships of up to $5,500 for students in need.
  • More gambling will now be allowed in Colorado, following the passage of an amendment to the state Constitution that raises the bet limit from $5 to $100. Additionally, the newly approved amendment legalizes gambling statewide 24 hours a day. Currently, casinos have to close when bars do at 2 a.m. About 6 percent of the funds garnered from this gambling will go to benefit the state community college system. Following the vote, opponents of the amendment cautioned the state: “Colorado now joins the states that have high-stakes gambling. While this will create state revenue for one worthy recipient, state community colleges, this benefit does not come without a high price.”


  • Maine's Question 2, which would have allowed a Nevada-based company to build a casino in Oxford County, failed. Thirty-nine percent of the casino's revenue was to go to the state, including a total of 10 percent for higher education. That money would have gone to help residents repay student loans; toward a plan allowing residents to prepay college tuition, fees, and housing; to the Maine Community College System; and to the NextGen First Step Grant Program, which helps residents save for college.


  • HB 4, which amends the state's constitution to allow the operation of up to 15,000 video lottery terminals (also known as slot machines) at five locations in Maryland, passed by a comfortable margin. At least 48.5 percent of the revenues from these slot machines is allocated to a new Education Trust Fund: much of this money will go to public schools, and the rest to the construction of capital projects at community colleges and other public higher education institutions.


  • Wayne County voters overwhelmingly approved the renewal of a 10-year, $1.5 million bond that provides Wayne County Community College District with about $33.5 million annually – about 40 percent of the college's budget. The bond measure failed last year, and the tax was set to expire in 2011; had the measure failed again, the college would have had to consider eliminating jobs and perhaps even campuses.


  • A property tax levy to support the Montana University System was renewed by voters Tuesday. Legislative referendum-118 provides the system with an estimated $12.5 million dollars each year through a 6-mill property tax.

North Carolina:

  • Wilmington, N.C., voters approved a $164 million bond referendum for Cape Fear Community College. The measure passed with 63 percent of the vote. This is a turnaround for the college which, in 2005, saw the defeat of a $150 million bond referendum. The bond money, paid for by a property tax levy, will be used to fund building projects to keep up with the college’s projected 31 percent growth by 2013


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