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Sarasota Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022 9 months ago

‘Yes’ on the March 8 votes

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Studies show that you get the same government with single-member districts as countywide elections. But with the latter, you get less self-serving political dealmaking.
by: Matt Walsh CEO

For our Sarasota County readers and voters, if you haven’t already mailed in your ballot or voted early, this is a kind reminder that March 8 is election day for two referendum questions.

We opined on the two questions earlier this month, recommending “yes” votes on both.

The school tax question is one that would be almost sacrilegious to urge rejection. As its proponents try to drum into our heads, this is not a new tax. Sarasota property owners have been paying this 1-mill tax since 2002. And you can make a convincing case that the money raised from this tax has been a critical factor in the Sarasota County School District consistently earning an “A” grade for its schools.

If you want to go back 20 years to this tax’s origin, some of you might remember it came after the 2000 dotcom recession. State coffers suffered then, and education funding from the Legislature wasn’t enough for Sarasota schools to offer some of the extras that made it a top-performing district in the state.

Sarasota County voters didn’t hesitate. The quality of the county’s schools has always been important, so voters approved the extra 1 mill. That money is now used for learning programs that help prevent struggling kids from sliding back during the summer, to pay teacher salaries and keep arts offerings (music, dance, art) in the curricula, and to keep an extra 30 minutes of classroom instruction per day.

All to the good of the cause.

So even if you’re not a fan of state-controlled education (which we are not), Sarasota County public schools have delivered a good return on that investment for taxpayers.

That one, as they say, is a “no-brainer.”

The other question is far less definitive on whether you color the “yes” or “no” bubble on the ballot.

The question is whether the Sarasota County commissioners should be elected from single-member districts or in countywide elections.

Since we addressed this question Feb. 3, we’ve watched and read the commentaries in other media. No surprise, they argued fervently against countywide elections and in favor of keeping single-member districts. And, of course, they trotted out the usual moth-eaten arguments:

Single-member commissioners will be more responsive and accountable to their voters. Single-member districts will make it less costly for people to run for office, thus attracting more candidates. Single-member districts will make it less likely that big-money developers will stack the commission with their puppets.

Blah, blah, blah.

Or turn those arguments around. They also are saying commissioners elected countywide will be less accountable and responsive. Only wealthy politically connected people will be able to afford to run for office. And developers will control the commissioners, with the goal of approving uncontrolled growth.

Blah, blah, blah.

Sorry to break the news, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether our county commissioners come from single-member districts or from countywide elections.

Adrian Moore, vice president of the Reason Foundation and a regular contributor to this page, told us recently researchers have conducted all kinds of studies over the years to determine whether there is empirical evidence signifying which model produces better government.

There isn’t. The results basically conclude that it doesn’t matter. You get the same kind of governance under either model. The difference basically comes down to the individual in office.

Intuition, of course, makes you think of the bromide that government is best closest to the people — the argument that would support keeping single-member districts. We all believe that. But here are two compelling reasons for countywide election of commissioners:

  • We want the best people for the job, be they from North Port, Venice or Sarasota. You don’t get that choice with single-member districts.
  • Politicians are all the same. Their top priority is getting re-elected, and they all learn quickly that politics is rooted in making behind-the-scenes deals. With single-member districts, the commissioners become incentivized to spend money on projects that improve their districts. “Bring home the bacon.” That wins votes — more so than thinking foremost about the larger picture of what is best for all county taxpayers.

Likewise, we see this in Tallahassee every session. They call it horse trading. Every lawmaker represents a district that has a pet project that requires funding. So the trading starts on Day One of the session: “You support my district’s baseball stadium; I’ll support your district’s sewer replacement project.”

It’s one of the dark realities of politics.

With countywide elections, there will be horse trading, yes, but not the blatant kind that results in “Bridges to Nowhere.”

Once again …

We recommend: Yes on both questions March 8.

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Matt Walsh is the CEO of Observer Media Group. He founded the company in 1995 with Lisa Walsh and David and Ruth Beliles.

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