Was it the no-new-taxes pitch? A simplified message? The promise of long-term savings? A new campaign team? All of the above?
Whatever Boise Mayor David Bieter and the Protect Boise campaign did differently this year led to an impressive showing at the polls Tuesday night for the city's $17 million bond measure. Approval for the bond didn't just clear the two-thirds supermajority bar, it crushed it.
When all the votes were counted, "Yes" votes on the bond outnumbered "No" votes more than 3-to-1.
If Abraham Lincoln came back to life and ran for president, he might not get a three-fourths majority against George McGovern.
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Here, in descending order, are what I see as the most important differences from last year, when Boise, at Bieter's behest, floated a nearly identical measure:
1. Simplicity. Bond measures are inherently complex and hard-to-sell issues. You're asking people to raise their own taxes. In itself, that's usually a non-starter. In this case, Boise wanted to spend that extra money on things people hope they'll never notice: a training facility and four new, improved or moved fire stations. That's hard enough to write, let alone explain over the phone to someone who'd rather focus on fixing dinner.
Last year's fire bond had company on the ballot. Right next to it was a second bond measure, this one for open space purchases and parks improvements. You have to wonder if seeing both measures overwhelmed some voters, who then voted against both.
This year, there was just one bond measure.
2. "No new taxes." A swelling bottom line allowed Boise to reduce its contributions to a firefighter retirement account. Those savings should more than cover the cost of repaying the $17 million the city will borrow for the fire department projects.
True, last year's measures wouldn't have raised property taxes very much: about $1 per month for a typical homeowner. It's also true that property taxes could have gone down, or the money could have been spent elsewhere, if Boise didn't borrow the $17 million.
But there's nothing like zero. Telling people they can get something without forking over any more money to the government is vastly better than saying it'll cost less than a pizza every year, or a coffee every month.
Idaho is full of people who are (rightly) suspicious of government and see taxes as government's main tool for exerting authority over its subjects. Promising no new taxes disarmed some of that suspicion.
3. Fiscal responsibility. This one seemed like the best argument to me. It's also the most complex argument, so I'm guessing it wasn't a big factor at the polls.
In short, Boise's budget budget experts expect the city to save money in the long run by borrowing and spending the $17 million now. Counterintuitive, right? Well, there's a rational explanation.
Here goes: The firefighter training facility and four stations are at the top of Boise's project list. With or without the bond, the city was always going to do them. If the bond didn't pass, the city would have had to pay cash as it accumulates. That would have taken a decade or so. During that time, Boise's budget team expects construction costs to rise at a rate of 5 percent. The same experts think they'll be able to borrow money at an interest rate of around 2 percent.
If they're right, the city should save a few dollars.