Republicans would throw out any city or school district bond election if fewer than 60% of voters cast a ballot — even if it passes.
The goal, according to Rep. Michael Carbone, R-Buckeye, is to ensure more voters weigh in when local governments take on more debt. But the proposed new law would actually give voters who stay home veto power over the decisions of people who voted in an election.
His House Bill 2719 would require that bond elections happen only in even-numbered years and would invalidate those elections if less than 60% of registered voters turn out for the election. It would also require a larger percentage of voters to sign off on a petition to initiate a bond election.
School districts typically ask voters for permission to take on debt through bond elections when they need to build a new school or renovate an existing one but don’t have the budget to do so. Municipalities might ask for money to fund infrastructure updates or construction that would benefit the entire community. Bonds are paid for through local property taxes.
Carbone said he wants school districts and municipalities to “do it right” when it comes to persuading voters to approve a bond issue, instead of repeatedly going back to voters with a new bond question if the first one fails.
Phoenix’s ballot question asking for $500 million in bonds to update critical infrastructure like rehabilitation of city parks, libraries, fire and police stations, affordable housing, streets and storm drains, passed in the November 2023 election. But just 21% of voters voted in the election.
Carbone’s proposal would not only require bond elections to happen in even-numbered years — the year when state and federal offices are on the ballot, and voter turnout is higher — and only during the November general elections, it would also increase from 15% to 25% the number of voter signatures needed to even get a bond question on the ballot.
But he said that he doesn’t think the changes will stop governing bodies from completing successful bond elections campaigns.
“Taxpayers will invest their hard-earned dollars when you ask them right,” Carbone told the House Municipal and Elections Oversight Committee on Feb. 7.
He added that he doesn’t believe it’s fair to property owners who choose not to vote in an election when such a small percentage of the electorate decides whether their tax payments could increase.
Rep. Laura Terech, D-Phoenix, said she had similar concerns about voter turnout and participation during off-year elections, but was unconvinced that Carbone’s bill was a good solution.
“How would you respond to the reality that some areas have perpetually low turnout?” she asked Carbone, saying that some municipalities or school districts might never reach 60% turnout, even in a presidential election.
She added that, if people are truly concerned about their taxes increasing, it seems they would make the effort to vote in an election whose result would raise taxes.
Carbone countered that municipalities and school districts that are asking their voters to increase taxes should do a better job of getting the word out about the elections so that the voters are informed about the election. Under state law, special taxing districts can conduct all-mail elections in which every registered voter is mailed a ballot, and many of them do so for bond elections.
Carbone added that he was willing to work with Democrats on possible amendments to the bill.
Rep. Cesar Aguilar, D-Phoenix, wondered what would happen for schools that don’t achieve 60% voter turnout for bonds, even when on the ballot during a presidential election, which historically draws the highest turnout of any election.
While Arizona’s statewide voter turnout was 80% for the last presidential election in 2020, and around 64% in the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections, some voters who mark a choice for president or governor might skip a down-ballot issue like a bond question. And that voter turnout isn’t equally spread across the state.
“The state isn’t properly funding K-12. A lot of districts rely on that to keep the schools up to date on construction,” he said.
Terech asked Carbone how he would respond to voters who cast their vote in support of a bond in an election that doesn’t reach the 60% threshold and feel disenfranchised because their vote in that election was discarded.
Carbone returned to the argument that bonds would pass with a high turnout if promoted correctly.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s hard,” he said. “If we do it the right way, it will pass.”
In explaining her vote against the bill, Rep. Betty Villegas, D-Tucson, pointed out that the percentage of people and organizations that signed in against House Bill 2719 was much larger than 60%, with 328 signed in against it and only 19 in support. But she agreed with the general principle that more needs to be done to increase voter turnout on bond issues.
The members of the House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee voted 5-4, along party lines, to forward the bill to the House for consideration.
“Getting that buy-in to raise property taxes is a huge deal,” said Rep. Austin Smith, R-Wittman.
While the bill has a chance of making it through the House and Senate, which both hold one-seat Republican majorities, it will almost certainly meet its end with a veto from Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs.
It next moves to the full House of Representatives for consideration.