I winced when I saw the headline about Windsor voters rejecting their town’s budget for the fourth time. Turnout for a referendum that will likely cause layoffs and school cuts was an appallingly low 20 percent.
This can’t go on.
A long time ago, when Connecticut was just a motley collection of English religious fanatics and outcasts squatting on land next to the river and the coast, we developed the unique system of town meetings as a way of deciding local policies and laws. Since the towns were all fairly tiny it wasn’t difficult to get pretty much everybody who had a vote (i.e., property-owning white men) to show up.
The town meeting system worked well enough for a while, but as towns grew and government’s role in our lives became larger and more complex it became less and less useful — so many towns switched away from it. Still, we never quite got rid of the notion that voters should have a chance to weigh in on the budget, so a lot of towns still decide budgets by having the town council or finance board create the budget before sending it to either the town meeting or the electorate for approval.
It’s a deeply broken system. Budgets are complex and difficult to understand in the limited time most people have to devote to them. Turnout is often abysmal and skews older and more conservative, which is why schools, which are by far the largest town expenditure, often suffer terribly.
Windsor illustrates all these problems very neatly. Windsor’s town council wanted a pre-K program at one of the schools in town and to make several other relatively small increases to the budget, but voters hated the idea. After the first budget went down, the council made some cuts. After the second budget died, the town scrapped the plan for an expanded pre-K program — which would have been 90 percent paid for with state money.
After the third, they restored some non-school cuts and cut the school budget more. That didn’t work, either, and now the town is facing a fifth referendum. The cuts this time around could include layoffs and a school budget trimmed back to the bone.
The rejection of the pre-K program is especially tragic considering that Windsor is designated as an “alliance” school district, which means they’re in the bottom 20 percent of districts in performance.
And it’s not like Windsor is suffering under a harsh tax regime. Windsor’s mill rate is 30.47, lower than all the other inner ring suburbs: Bloomfield (34.84), Newington (34.77), West Hartford (37.37), Wethersfield (36.47), and East Hartford (45.40). Windsor’s per-pupil spending is right around the middle of the pack, too.
Windsor isn’t the only town having problems. East Hampton’s third try at a budget was defeated by voters, Plymouth and Naugatuck voters also recently rejected their budgets. A whole slew of other towns, like Monroe and Bethel, rejected both town and school budgets before finally approving them later. I’d say that this was all blowback against an unpopular state budget, but this sort of thing happens every budget season.
Direct democracy seems like a great idea, but in practice it rarely is. Complex legislation must be boiled down and oversimplified to make it digestible for a lot of voters, and that’s dangerous. California’s voters passed so many restrictive and odd ballot initiatives that the state soon became almost impossible to govern. Springfield, Mass. voters approved a casino project that may well turn out to be a disaster. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that referendums in many, many states banned same-sex marriage in 2004, effectively putting the rights of a minority up for majority vote.
To fix this, towns must let go of the ancient ideal of direct citizen rule and give elected officials more power. A council-manager form of government which doesn’t require a public vote to pass a budget seems to work fairly well, because the town manager is a professional administrator and the members of the council can dedicate themselves to actually understanding the budget and its ramifications much more than the public at large. And if people don’t like the decisions they make, they can swap out officials during the higher-turnout municipal elections.
Giving up on direct democracy is a hard sell for a lot of people. But many towns, like Newington and Enfield, don’t have referendums at all — and they work just fine. More should go this route. Our towns will run better, our schools will be funded, and, perhaps counterintuitively, more people will actually be represented.
And then maybe Windsor can finally pass that budget.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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