Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Student projects focus on municipal referenda, employee benefits for small businesses

Student projects focus on municipal referenda, employee benefits for small businesses

La Follette School students conducted research and analysis for State Rep. Tip McGuire and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities as their culminating Workshop in Public Affairs (PA 869) projects in Spring 2020.

For the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, a group of students analyzed 108 referenda held in Wisconsin from 2006 to 2018. Their goal was to understand the factors contributing to successful passage of 38 referenda in the years since the state enacted levy limits to restrict the amount of additional revenue local governments could raise through the property tax.

Several characteristics—both within and outside of a municipality’s control—contribute to the likelihood of referendum passage, the report said.

“The purpose, amount of tax increase, duration of increase, and area homeownership rate are important predictors of passage,” the students wrote. “For example, levies proposed for road repairs and construction are less likely to pass than those for public safety, waste collection, and public health. Also, levies that propose a one-time increase are less likely to pass then those that provide for ongoing tax liabilities.”

The students examined the demographic, socioeconomic, and communication characteristics that contributed to passage of referenda. Their report provides a quantitative analysis of publicly available data and case studies of referenda in the cities of De Pere, Janesville, and South Milwaukee.

Based on interviews and other analysis, the students identified referenda wording, timing, and communication as factors related to levy passage.

Mary Morris, Jackson Parr, Sally Rohrer, Sarah Souders, and Michael Zell collaborated on the project for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. 

For Rep. McGuire, one team of students investigated policies for consideration in the Wisconsin Legislature to help small businesses attract and retain workers by offering or providing access to health insurance, retirement plans, and paid leave.

“In today’s labor market, workers expect and rely on employer-provided benefits,” the students wrote. “For many small businesses, that is a challenge. Offering benefits is costly, and managing benefits is exceptionally difficult for small business owners who may not have any human resources staff.”

The students explored two policy proposals in each of three areas: health insurance coverage, retirement plan coverage, and paid leave coverage. Their evaluation was based on the policy’s ability to expand benefits coverage, the cost to the State of Wisconsin (public cost), the cost to small business owners, the administrative work required, and the feasibility of successful implementation.

The proposals outline actions small businesses can take on their own but could be made easier by the state, steps small businesses need the state to take in order to make it feasible for them to offer benefits, and strategies for transferring the provision of benefits to the state.

Abigail Buta, Jessica Gehr, Ben Hofer, John Holland, and Lucy Pepin collaborated on the project for Rep. McGuire. Professor J. Michael Collins served as the advisor for both projects.