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Luskin: Voter Motivation

As Moderator of Newfane’s Town Meeting, I’ve learned it’s impossible to predict what will become a bone of contention on which the body politic will gnaw. Some years, there’s been heated debate about how much to pay elected officials; others, it’s been about whether or not we really need a new truck. This year, voters worked through the first dozen articles with little discussion and less dissent.

Our taxes are divided roughly and unequally between paying for town government, maintaining bridges and roads, funding public safety, and making special appropriations. Of these, special appropriations account for only six per cent of the budget but were the subject of the longest debate of the day.

It was moved and seconded to add $2,400 for two social service agencies we’ve funded in the past - but missed the application deadline this year. The report from our Montpelier delegation spoke of significant poverty in our state, and no one questioned the need for the good work these organizations do. But some expressed frustration that the groups failed to follow the application procedure, which is clear and fair. What struck me was how thorough, civil and compassionate this discussion was, especially when so relatively little money was at stake.

It left me wondering why there isn’t the same thoughtful discussion of the school budgets, which account for a much greater share of our taxes. There isn’t even the same level of participation. In the weeks leading up to Town Meeting, we had separate votes on the high school and elementary school budgets, which were both much bigger than the town’s. But we had poor turn out: Ninety-one voters for the seven million dollar high school budget, and just eight voters for a budget of over two million dollars for our joint elementary school. By contrast, about sixty voters attended Town Meeting.

I suspect two reasons for this inverse proportion of voters to budgets. The first is that the school budget is just a small variable in an overly complex equation whose solution is beyond local voters’ control. Voters have given up where their votes don’t make an obvious difference. The other reason is that people still adhere to the tradition of Town Meeting on the first Tuesday in March. They lose track of when the several different budget votes for different school districts occur.

But as I witnessed in Newfane this year, voters are eager to deliberate and vote when doing so makes a difference.