Ask the Voters

As a rule, I don’t like referendums.

It seems to me that people get elected to study the issues and to apply their values and best judgement to the facts. We don’t elect windsocks. We elect legislators.

But there are exceptions. In some cases referendums are required by law to, for example, amend the state constitution. And occasionally they’re useful in breaking a legislative logjam.

That’s the case now with the Dane County jail consolidation project. The County Board has been spinning its wheels on this for over a decade and it seems no closer to resolution now than it was months ago.

There is a proposal before the Board tonight to ask voters to make the decision in a binding referendum on the April ballot. Specifically, voters would be asked if they support adding up to another $13.5 million in borrowing to the project. This is in addition to the $164 million already approved by the Board. That would be enough — under current cost projections — to build a new six story tower, shut down the awful 1950’s jail in the City County Building and the old Huber facility in the Alliant Center parking lot, and provide better facilities for family visits and services.

Sheriff Kalvin Barrett stands in the doorway of a cell in the old City-County Building jail that would need to be kept open if the hard-left gets its way.

What’s not to like? Well, there are some on the hard-left who have a naive view of the world. (Well, okay, everybody on the hard-left has a naive view of the world.) They think every inmate is a political prisoner and smaller jails — or no jails — would mean that social justice would be served in some bizarre way. Never mind the social injustice of murder, robbery, rape, domestic violence, assault, etc. The hard-left activists want an even smaller jail, a five, instead of six, story facility that would have about 30% fewer beds than what we have now. Even the six story building would wind up with about 20% fewer beds than the current combined facilities — all in the fastest growing county in the state.

So, if your goal is to squeeze people out of the jail, mission accomplished even at six stories. But Sheriff Kalvin Barrett and his predecessors warn that if the hard-left gets its way the county won’t be able to close the dangerous jail in the CCB. So much for social justice.

So the hard-left’s social justice issue is bogus, but the cost issue is real. It just keeps going up, and there’s part of the rub. Planning continues on the six story facility and new cost estimates will be out in March. But that’s too late to get the question on the spring ballot, hence the rush to put the question on the ballot now. The downside of that is that, given what’s happening with inflation in general and construction costs in particular, it’s almost a dead certainty that another $13.5 million won’t be enough.

That’s why it would make more sense to ask voters to authorize more, say up to $20 million. Proponents of the referendum might feel that will make it even harder for this to get by the County Board. But keep in mind that whatever number they pick will be a maximum. If the numbers come in lower all the money doesn’t have to be spent. And also keep in mind that those who are against this are ideological puritans. They want a smaller jail and they won’t support $13.5 million any more than they’ll support $20 million or any other number.

A referendum was proposed to the Board late last year and it went down in flames, with only a couple of Supervisors voting for it. A few more months of frustration may have garnered more votes this time around, but it still seems like getting this on the ballot is a long shot.

The irony is that this is County Board more than willing to put goofy questions on the ballot that are cynically designed to do nothing more than run up Democratic vote totals. They did exactly that in November with senseless questions about legalizing marijuana and restoring abortion rights. Gosh, everybody was just on pins and needles wondering where Dane County voters were at on those two issues.

And on tonight’s agenda is yet another cynical use of a referendum that would ask voters if they support a right to privacy protecting abortion (yet again) but adding — just for the juice it would give to turnout — same sex marriage. If you’re a Republican cheering me on this line, stop. Your party is doing exactly the same thing in a statewide referendum asking voters if welfare recipients should be forced to look for work, no matter that most of them are already required to do that. They’re also adding a referendum asking to allow judges to take into consideration the dangerousness of a defendant when setting bail amounts, but that’s more legitimate since it’s a constitutional amendment requiring approval in a referendum. Nonetheless, it’s not lost on Republicans that this should help the conservative Supreme Court candidate on the same ballot.

The cynical use of referendums to boost turnout is an old practice of both parties. But the jail question is a rare chance to use a referendum to do some good and make some progress. Here’s a question for Dane County voters that won’t be on the next ballot but should be a year from now when the whole Board is up for reelection: will your Supervisor do the right thing?

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

2 thoughts on “Ask the Voters

  1. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of advisory referendums. I agree with your assessment that most are a just a cynical ploy to drum up partisan support for other more important issues on the ballot. As for binding referendums, I believe some types are “good” and some types are “bad”. In my opinion, a “good” binding referendum question is one that effectively gives the general public veto power over a decision that the governing body has already made. At the state level, an example is the requirement for the public to grant final approval before a state constitutional amendment is implemented. At a more local level, examples would be the requirement for the public to grant final approval before a municipal government or school board can exceed levy limits. The proposed binding referendum on the Dane County jail project is an example of what I would consider to be a “bad” type of referendum question. The Dane County jail project is a highly technical issue. Our elected officials are privy to detailed reports and participate in committee discussions where they can discuss and debate the pros and cons of various options. We elect officials to make difficult decisions, so they should make decisions. In contrast, the general public can’t reasonably be expected to understand all the nuanced implications of jail expansion options and as such they can’t make an informed decision. In my opinion, the Dane County Board is abdicating their responsibility by basically punting and expecting an uninformed public to make the decision. This is an example of a “bad” type of binding referendum question. Note, I wrote this prior to the County Board deciding not to put this question to a binding referendum after all. Good on them, I say. A direct citizen initiative is another type of binding referendum. A direct citizen initiative is a form of direct democracy where the public can bypass the legislature and directly pass a law or (in some states) a constitutional amendment. Twenty-four states have some form of an initiative process in place. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is not one of those states. If we had a citizen initiative process, Wisconsin would likely be able to pass broadly popular measures like non-partisan redistricting, abortion access, gun control, marijuana legalization, Medicaid expansion and others which our corporate controlled legislature is opposed to. Gregg Riemer

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