Court: A promise of lower taxes isn’t ‘vote buying’

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today settled — for now — the ongoing role of school boards when it comes to campaigning for passage of levy referenda.

In April 2013, four months after a referendum for a new school failed by 12 votes in Rothsay, the school board there scaled down the proposal by $5 million and sent this letter to citizens, saying if they approved another referendum, their taxes would drop, unless they were farmers.

As you view the enclosed proposed tax impact studies one can visualize that without the [previously approved] $1,500 excess levy, which the Board has promised not to use if [this] referendum is successful, all residential homestead dwellings under $200,000 will experience a net decrease in taxes. As most of the property in our district is ag[ricultural] land[,] ag[ricultural] land would carry the largest burden in this proposal, just as it did [in] the previous proposal. We as a school district have no control [of] this fact as the tax impact is calculated by state statute.

The referendum passed, 348-to-315.

Owners of agricultural land, several of whom didn’t live within the school district boundary, sued, saying the promise of lower taxes violated state law, which makes offering money or anything of value in exchange for a vote is a felony.

“It’s just the economic impact in the agriculture sector,” Gerald Nordick, a Meadows Township farmer and one of those filing the suit, told the Wahpeton Daily News. “Yes, it was passed by the voters, but we in the ag land are footing the bill for 85 percent of the school.”

Their suit was tossed out by a lower court and today the Court of Appeals smacked down the assertion that it was vote buying.

“Campaign promises are a feature of most elections, and any candidate who promises to lower taxes, reduce government expenses, or improve government services is promising voters something ‘of monetary value’ possibly, if not probably, ‘to induce [them] . . . to vote in a particular way,’” Judge Roger Klaphake wrote in the opinion of the three-judge panel (pdf). “A literal interpretation of the statute leads to the unreasonable and absurd conclusion that any candidate who makes such a promise should be prosecuted for a felony. This interpretation must be rejected, because a court presumes that ‘the legislature does not intend a result that is absurd, impossible of execution, or unreasonable.’”

Klaphake said the school board wasn’t attempting to “buy votes,” but was informing residents of the tax implications of the referendum.