Election 2017: 4 ballot measures cities should watch
Local elections have been occurring throughout the summer and fall, but a cluster of them take place next Tuesday. Of the 27 statewide measures showing up on ballots this year, 22 of them go to voters on Nov. 7.
This is actually the lowest number of ballot measures nationwide since 1947, continuing a decade-long decline. The average number of ballot measures in odd-numbered years since 2001 has been 47.
Many of Tuesday's measures cover taxes, but four particularly relate to developments that could alter smart city agendas. Smart Cities Dive has broken down those four measures and their significance both for locals voting on them and in terms of implications for other cities.
Maine Question 3: Transportation Bond Issue
Should $105 million in bonds be issued for transportation infrastructure projects?
What it could mean for cities: The bonds would be issued for construction, reconstruction and rehabilitation of a variety of types of infrastructure as part of Governor LePage's three-year transportation work plan.The breakdown is $80 million for the state's highways and bridges, $20 million for ports, harbors, railroads, bicycle trails, pedestrian trails, aviation and transit and $5 million for a grant program to upgrade culverts.
Maine's harsh winters contribute to the repeated degradation of its infrastructure more than in other parts of the country. But its low population per square mile — the bottom quarter of all U.S. states — means it has less tax money to rely on. The high level of need for infrastructure upgrades and lower ability to finance creates a bit of a double whammy.
Although $100 million in transportation infrastructure funding passed last year, this $105 million measure is on the ballot because of the rough shape of Maine's infrastructure. Last year the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Maine's overall infrastructure a grade of C-, with dams and levees receiving a D+, roads a D, railroads a C, airports a C+ and ports and waterways a B-.
Proponents of the bond issue say this round of funding wouldn't even be enough to move ahead with infrastructure, only to keep the state from falling further behind. They also point out that passing the bonds would secure about $137 million extra in federal money. Opponents don't like the idea of continuing to borrow in order to fund programs. They're more in favor of raising transportation project money by bumping up tax rates on gas, saying it's cheaper and fairer.
President Trump has made infrastructure improvements one of his top priorities, although few plans have come to light yet. If Maine's Question 3 does not pass, it could signal difficulties for both the federal government and cities in moving forward with infrastructure projects. If that is the case, lawmakers at the federal and local levels should listen hard to citizens' reasoning for voting down the bond issue before attempting to push through similar measures.
New Jersey Public Question 1: Bond for Public Libraries
Should the state issue $125 million in bonds to provide grants to public libraries?
What it could mean for cities: The bonds would fund grants that can be used to build, expand and equip public libraries to better serve citizens. The grants would cover half the cost of each project, and the municipalities would have to come up with the other half.
Opponents believe the spending is misguided and New Jersey can't afford to take on more debt. Many recognize the educational benefit of libraries and the need for upgrades — mainly in the areas of technology and ADA compliance — but they say the funding doesn't exist unless perhaps a new fee or tax is instated. They also note that library use is slipping in the digital age.
Although libraries nationwide have seen lower numbers of patrons checking out physical books, the buildings serve a variety of purposes other than simply housing books. Proponents of the ballot measure say libraries serve as community centers and provide spaces for community groups to meet. They also offer computer centers and other similar assets that some citizens wouldn't otherwise have access to.
This bond issue reportedly doesn't have groups rallying loudly in favor or against it. If the non-controversial measure does not pass, it could signify a shift in public opinion about funding projects widely regarded as positive for the community. It could mean that raw dollars lie at the heart of the matter and voters might not wish to pass any initiatives that hit their wallets hard, regardless of how beneficial the outcome.
New Jersey Public Question 2: Revenue from Environmental Damage Lawsuits Dedicated to Environmental Projects Amendment
In cases of environmental contamination, should state revenue from legal settlements related to natural resource damages be allocated toward restoring and protecting natural resources and paying the costs of pursuing the settlements?
What it could mean for cities: If passed, this would amend the state constitution and essentially lock away money won in environmental lawsuits to keep it separate from other general funds. The money would only be used for restoring or replacing damaged or lost natural resources, or for paying legal costs related to pursuing such environmental settlements. The state would have to prioritize restoring the area involved in the lawsuit before going toward other projects.
The amendment was brought on by disagreements between the state legislature and governors over allocating environmental settlements to fill other budget holes. Concern has grown under Governor Chris Christie due to his choices on how to spend multiple large pollution settlements. For example, he only slated about $50 million from a $225 million Exxon Mobil pollution settlement to go toward environmental projects. Christie's proposed 2018 budget also included using pollution settlements for balancing the state budget.
Without the environmental settlement lockbox, the state would have the ability to allocate the money at its whim without cleaning up the environmental damage for which the lawsuit was served. That could negatively impact citizens who live in the immediate area of the damage. Plus it would affect those who use the natural resources for recreation or their livelihoods, such as kayakers or fishermen who use a polluted river.
No groups have voiced major opposition to the measure. If it does not pass, it could indicate that voters are willing to balance municipal budgets by any means necessary, or that the environment is not a high priority.
New York Proposal 3: Forest Preserve Land Bank Amendment
Should a 250-acre land bank be created from which local governments could request state forest preserve land for projects, in exchange for adding another 250 acres of land to the forest preserve? In addition, should bike paths and certain utility lines be allowed within the width of highways on preserve land?
What it could mean for cities: By definition, the state-owned forest preserve in the Adirondacks is to remain untouched, and it currently abuts a number of municipalities. New York's constitution states that the land is to remain "forever wild" and locals cannot make any alterations, even if it's necessary for improving adjacent municipal properties. For example, municipalities cannot replace dangerous bridges or straighten hazardous road curves if it would cause an encroachment onto preserve land.
This measure would create a 250-acre land bank from which municipalities could request pieces to perform improvements, if they can prove no other viable option exists. Before municipalities could request land swaps, the state would acquire 250 new acres to add to the forest preserve.
The proposal also would allow bike trails and utilities such as sewers and cables to be installed along highways that cross the preserve. There would be width specifications and any improvements would have to remove as few trees and vegetation as possible.
If this measure passes it will underscore the need to find a happy medium between preservation and progress. As community needs evolve — especially for safety matters — so too can the means by which states retain and protect their natural areas.
- Ballotpedia 2017 ballot measures
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