Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Lehman Proposal

Typically, I don't use many names in my blog posts.

Today, I will, just for the context of the post and also to laud the owner of the centerpiece of this post.

First, readers of this blog and election geeks everywhere know that voting systems in the United States are aging, with often no identifiable funding mechanisms to fund the replacements.

I've written about that extensively here regarding Johnson County.

In fact, we've painted ourselves into a corner in Johnson County.  Our office has been promised the funding for a new system when that system is defined.  Alternatively, money was being socked away annually to prepare for the system but that process stopped in 2011.

We're defining the system, planning for a 2017 rollout, promises remain, but the county's financial position to back up that promise is suspect at best.

I've been continuing to advocate that the cost of elections be itemized on residents' property tax bills and be funded through a separate mill levy.

That isn't some nutty idea--it's in Kansas law, a separate mill levy for elections, and Wyandotte County, for instance, does it.  I'm not pushing for a tax increase, although that could be a vehicle county commissioners have to link actual costs against dollars raised.

It's the ultimate in public transparency.  Residents would know exactly how much (how little, in fact) elections are costing them and when callers ask for more advance voting options or newer equipment, for instance, they'd know what the impact would be to their pocketbook.

Personally, I think an itemized tax statement would drive more government accountability, so I can't see how it's a bad thing.

Another reason supporting this change, I believe, is a new law passed this year that soon will require governing bodies to receive public approval through a (costly) election if mill levy rates are increased above the rate of inflation.  Special elections are funded by the jurisdictions calling for them and not the election office.  However, in the board of county commissioner's case, county tax dollars will have to pay for such an election.

Being proactive now by utilizing this elections mill levy and pulling out election costs from the general fund would help them later, I'm convinced.

I'm the only one convinced at this point, though.

I guess I should just pause and the take the win from another legislative item I'd pushed for years--schools being out of session on election day.  Coupled with moving spring elections to the fall, this essentially has happened with the elections law that passed this year.  Schools don't have to out of session, but are required to be available.

That win took 10 years.

I'm into about year four of the elections mill levy advocacy.

But, back to the equipment.

Conventional wisdom says the county will issue long-term debt as the method to find the funding for the voting system.  Problem is, long-term debt has an annual price tag.

Debt retires.  Annual price tags drop as a result.  Smart governing bodies (Shawnee Mission School District, especially) ensure that new debt follows the old and the amount being paid annually doesn't drop off.

A drop off would be good in the short-term for taxpayers, but then the sticker shock for new debt might keep new projects from being started and soon, a school district (for instance, not the one mentioned) would need to make operational spending cuts or request a tax increase to operate the same way it had 10 years ago.

So, in Johnson County, if the amount of annual debt added exceeds the amount retiring, that money is going to have to come from the operating budget--the same one that for 2016 already exceeds the existing mill levy.

The amount of annual debt service payments required for a voting system will exceed the retiring debt service payments.  (There is some fuzzy math that might say otherwise, but if you dig deep enough, you'll find this to be true).

Down the road, our voting equipment will be a tax increase in the making because we haven't planned and now, ironically, it would take a costly election to approve the funding.

This, by the way, is what happened in the late 1960s that led to Johnson County taxpayers voting to approve the purchase of voting machines (and the legislative creation of the mill levy tax for elections that some counties utilize).

Fact is, though, the mill levy in those counties is paying for operating expenses, not debt on capital.

So, while I try to push on that item, funding for voting systems needs a similar press with the legislature.

One Johnson County commissioner, John Toplikar, wondered if there was a way to create a technology fee within the Kansas legislature to pay for new equipment.

I'm not a fan of fees--he isn't either, I think--because they are hidden taxes.  Tipping fees for landfills, for instance, are built back into the cost of service for trash haulers and passed on to residents.

But if there was a fee that didn't impact taxpayers?

My peer in Sedgwick County, Tabitha Lehman, has suggested a portion of political contributions be funneled back to the state for new voting equipment.

(Quick interlude--Tabitha represents one member of a cadre of election administration superstars in Kansas; I travel and meet with my colleagues across the country, and Kansas election administrators show very well.  They fall behind the shadow of a loudmouth know-it-all with a blog, and are among the country's best-kept election administration secrets).

Back to Tabitha's idea.  It's akin, I guess, to a portion of money raised by college athletics to be put back into the campus infrastructure--parking fees, reduced ticket prices for students, and campus security.

I'm not sure of the dollars--it's worth building a case based on actual contributions from 2012 and 2014.  What if, for instance, candidates who raised more than $2,000 or $5,000 in a race had to contribute, say, five percent back to the state for the administration of an election technology fee?

There are probably ways to exempt loans and contributions from the candidate (it would seem unfair to self-fund a campaign and pay, essentially, a penalty for not taking contributions).  It's possible that 5 percent wouldn't even make a dent, unless, of course this became federal legislation.

In fact, I know there are several immediate reasons why this wouldn't work.  "Dark money," for instance--how would that be captured?

But the fact is we are about to see an outrageous amount of political spending, heading into 2016.  These candidates will expect voting systems of the same sophistication as their campaigns.

Major league players deserve major league stadiums.

One thing is clear to me--communities will get new election systems when these expire.  We're not going to collectively raise our hands to vote and the Internet appears, for now, off limits as an idea (I mean, come on, when the IRS is hacked....)

It's time to drive the discussion and find a funding solution before it's funding out of crisis.  Frankly, I think we're heading into funding out of crisis in Johnson County despite my barking.

But we're on the leading edge of this issue--Johnson County's voting system fleet is among the oldest in the nation.  Many communities implemented new systems about three years after we did, with funding from the Help America Vote Act, and we're just the leading indicator of pain ahead.

So, I proudly will begin pushing the Lehman Proposal.  Or the Tabitha Tabulation Solution.

My experience has been that the best way to push for ideas is come up with one that, worst case, can be criticized and drive debate.  If there are reasons why this won't work, let's discuss them and determine what will work.

Otherwise, many of us in Kansas may eventually be conducting special elections on outdated equipment to determine if taxpayers are willing for a tax increase to pay for a new voting system.

Maybe that's the logical outcome of all of this, but being proactive now may avoid it.