Daily Herald opinion: It should be law that you're told about referendums proposals' pros and cons

Are you really getting that information? Sometimes yes, often no - but what if there were rules about that?

The last time you voted on a referendum, how well did you know or understand its implications?

Governments put referendums on ballots to seek all kinds of things. In the suburbs, tax increases beyond allowable property tax hikes are most common, as are bond issues - borrowing money typically for large projects. Sometimes referendums are as grand as requests to amend the state constitution.

The referendums often come with significant information campaigns. But do you always get the pros and cons of the proposals?

What if it were required that you do?

As a matter of fact, for this year's state constitutional amendment, it was required. The Illinois Constitutional Amendment Act states that a "a brief explanation of such amendment," "a brief argument in favor of same" and "a brief argument against" shall be given to and published by the secretary of state in a pamphlet, which must be mailed to every household and be downloadable from the office's website.

And so it was with this year's statewide amendment on union bargaining rights. A pretty simple pamphlet was made with a one-paragraph explanation, one paragraph of arguments in support, and one paragraph of arguments against. Comprehensive? No. But something.

Now what if all governments presenting referendums had to do that? You might say it's not necessary because many of those governments already do provide information on them. But there's a rub in that.

Let's say it's a school district. The school district is allowed to distribute "information" on the referendum; it's not allowed to campaign for the proposal - which is to say, directly ask voters to approve it.

But the line is fuzzy. When Warren Township High School District 121 titled its pamphlets for its June referendum, in large, nicely designed type, "INVESTING IN OUR STUDENTS," is that informing or campaigning? The pamphlets, to the district's credit, do nicely quantify the tax increase, and their language is very careful. (Voters approved the tax hike.)

But when Batavia Unit District 101 provided information about its proposed $140 million request this fall to replace two schools and do other work, it said it would "issue school building bonds that coincide with the retirement of its existing debt, generating funding ... without increasing the bond and interest property tax levy." That's true, but what it didn't say is that the property tax levy would decrease if the district didn't take on the new debt. (The proposal was rejected by just 24 votes.)

A pamphlet like what the state requires with constitutional amendments could have provided the simple pros and cons. And we see other ideas locally and from around the country that ought to be considered. California lawmakers have proposed requiring disclosures of top donors in petitions for a referendum, then requiring disclosure of people, businesses or organizations supporting and opposing the measure. Idaho lawmakers proposed stating right in a referendum question what a supplemental tax levy would be spent on.

And check out the Arizona secretary of state's 2022 "General Election Publicity Pamphlet," required by state law; it provides bigger lists of pros and cons for all its statewide referendums (it had 10!). Such requirements would go a long way toward providing transparency and bringing more informed voting.

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