There’s a lot to like about the Local Election Act, a new law that went into effect July 1 that’s designed to save taxpayer money and combat voter fatigue by consolidating elections in November so voters are called to the polls just once a year.
But there’s a lot not to like about the law for school districts, which have traditionally held elections in February.
School officials face a funding gap for capital projects that was created by the law, fear the loss of vote approval of future funding as school bond issue proposals will be pitted against others on November ballots, and feel as though they’ll have to pay more than their fair share into a local fund that pays for elections.
“Eighty-nine school districts have gone on record,” Joe Guillen, executive director of the New Mexico School Board Association, said, noting the widespread opposition to the legislation. The measure worked its way through the statehouse as House Bill 98 and was passed at the 11th hour of this year’s legislative session.
Unlike municipalities, school districts don’t have the option to opt out of the law, a choice the law made available to municipalities. The Santa Fe City Council – whose elections now take place in March – seems to favor it, but is handing the decision off to the electorate by placing the question on the ballot this November.
Under the new law, school board elections – as well as nonpartisan elections for community college, and conservancy and arroyo flood control districts – will be held in November in odd-numbered years.
Partisan elections – county, state and federal – remain in November of even-numbered years.
Guillen says moving school board elections from February to November is problematic.
“Not only does it move elections, it extends the terms of school board members by 11 months,” he said.
Whereas in the past, school board candidates elected in February were seated that same month, the new law now directs all candidates elected in a November election to be sworn in the following January.
So school board members across the state will serve nearly a year longer than expected, beginning with those up for re-election in February, who will stay on through the end of 2019. And their re-election bids won’t take place in February, as scheduled, but are postponed until November 2019.
The school board association has other concerns created by the new law, which it feels jeopardizes long-reliable taxpayer-approved funding through mill levy and bond elections. Also, school districts could face new election costs, particularly for special elections, which can be done only by mail under the new law.
“School districts would have to conduct those elections at their own cost,” Guillen said of the special elections by mail.
The special elections would be needed to cover a gap in time between when existing bond or mill levy measures expire and when the next available consolidated November election takes place.
“So school districts that have mill levy or bond issues that expire in February 2019, like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, are going to have to do that (call a special election). They can’t wait until November 2019.”
Albuquerque and Santa Fe are among 37 school districts in the state facing that situation, according to Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for Santa Fe Public Schools.
“And they’ll have to do it every year until there’s a permanent fix,” said Siegle, who is also president of Santa Fe Community College’s elected Governing Board.
Existing laws require mill levies to support bond financing to be imposed “commencing with the property tax year in which the election was held.” But property taxes are imposed in the fall each year, making a November election too late to capture the first year of funding.
Siegle said the community college opposes the law and would rather keep elections in February. But SFCC doesn’t face as big a problem as the school district does.
“We don’t do bond elections every year; we just do them when we need them,” she said, speaking in her capacity as the SFCC board’s president. “So the move of elections to November doesn’t affect us like it does the public schools.”
A fix to the funding gap and other issues created by the law may be forthcoming. Siegle said school districts are working with legislators on amendments to be introduced during next year’s legislative session.
At Tuesday’s Santa Fe school board meeting, the board asked its staff for cost estimates for a mail-in election to be prepared in time for its Sept. 4 meeting. In an interview the day after that meeting, County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said she couldn’t quote an exact price without more information. But she did provide numbers that would render an educated guess.
Salazar said there are 83,352 registered voters in Santa Fe County eligible to vote in either school board elections or those involving the community college. The company that handles mail-in ballots for the county estimated the cost per ballot to be $2.21 per returned ballot – 95 cents for the ballot packet itself, 68 cents to mail it out and 58 cents if the ballot is returned. So the actual cost wouldn’t be known until after the election was over. But before anyone votes, the cost of producing the ballot packet and mailing it out would be about $136,000. The actual cost then depends on how many ballots are returned.
The school board has also discussed a probable additional expense for a campaign to educate voters about a special election.
At another board meeting earlier this month, board president Steven Carrillo railed against the law.
At that time, $130,000 was the figure being tossed around as an estimate of the cost of a special election by mail.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said. “And am I mistaken that money comes right out of the classroom, is that correct?”
Told that the cost would come out of the district’s operational budget, Carrillo lashed out at Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, who helped the bill win approval in the Senate and has been working with city of Santa Fe on it opting-in to the law, but wasn’t present at the school board meeting.
“¡Hijole!, man, what were you thinking?” he said, addressing Ivey-Soto in absentia. “Because $130,000 is a lot for us. Imagine what it is for the (other school districts). This is not a good idea, my friend.”
Carrillo also expressed concern about what would happen to bond questions that would appear on ballots during odd-numbered years. Consequently, they’d be on the same ballot as bond or mill levy questions brought by other entities like the state, city and county governments.
“My biggest concern is that when these bonds come up and they’re on the November election, people that hate taxes, they’ll go down the entire list and vote ‘no.’ And with all the noise having so many ballot questions at one time, the importance of what we do can get lost,” he said.
School districts have enjoyed a “home field advantage” of sorts as school elections have been exclusive to matters relating to the public schools and polling places are often located at school sites. It’s relatively easy for teachers, school staff and parents – people most interested in the outcome of school elections – to vote in those elections.
Others who may not have children attending schools have less motivation to go the polls, except when bond or mill levy elections result in increased property taxes, which don’t happen frequently and affect only property owners.
The school board association listed co-mingling of its bond and levy questions with those from other entities as one of its concerns at a Legislative Finance Committee meeting last month.
“As stated during legislative hearings, pitting the long list of bond and levy questions from all entities against each other on a single ballot will undoubtedly affect the number of questions passed and approved by the voters, which may hurt students, teachers and school districts,” said a document distributed at the LFC meeting.
Another concern is that, in the past, school districts have paid for the actual cost of an election to the county clerk. Under the new law, school districts pay a share of the cost of the election in November based on an annual assessment of $250 per $1 million of operational budget.
The school board association says there are no assurances that the amount school districts and other jurisdictions contribute to the election isn’t more than what it actually costs to hold the election.
What’s more, the law requires that entities pay in advance twice a year for an election held once every two years.
Terms to be adjusted
Meanwhile, Santa Fe city government has taken the first steps to move its elections from March to November. It has until Jan. 1 to opt in to the Local Elections Act, thus moving city elections from March in even-numbered years to November in odd-numbered years. Terms for sitting councilors and the mayor would have to be adjusted to fit the new school schedule
City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, who took the lead in introducing the measure, called it a “good government proposal” that would streamline the election schedule, potentially increase voter turnout and ease the transition into office for elected officials. Romero, two other newly elected councilors and Mayor Alan Webber were sworn in about a week after this year’s city election in March. Moving the elections to November gives them a two-month transition period before taking office.
In the case of city councilors and Mayor Webber, their four-year terms will be shortened by about two and a half months, ending on Dec. 31, 2021, instead of March 2022. If they run again, they would be on the ballot in November 2021.
Similar changes will take place for a set of four city councilors whose terms, under current law, would run out in March 2020. The next city election would be November 2019.
The City Council could have made the change on its own, but Romero-Wirth thought it was best for voters to decide rather than the nine members of the governing body. Language in the city charter and the proposed ballot question complicated matters.
In the end, the council took action to modify the language in the city charter contingent on voters approving the ballot question. Not particularly easy to decipher without knowing some background, it will read: “Shall the Santa Fe Municipal Charter be amended to allow the City to enact by ordinance its election date and the date on which officials take office as provided in the Local Elections Act?”
The County Commission last week took action to allow a similar question to be placed on the ballot this November.
If approved, the City Clerk’s Office will no longer run municipal elections. All elections will be conducted through the County Clerk’s Office.
There was some concern about how the city’s elections will fit into the new scheme because of the recently employed charter amendment that requires city elections to be decided by the ranked-choice method of voting.
In odd-numbered years, would voting machines be able to handle ranked-choice voting for the city elections and voting by plurality for other non-partisan positions on the same ballot?
County Clerk Salazar said she has been assured by the company that makes the machines that the machines can accommodate both types of elections at the same time.