Voters board bondwagon
Chicago — Many Americans bristle at any attempt to raise their taxes. But they are saying ''yes'' more often these days to local and state bond issues for everything from highway repairs to new parks and libraries.
Actually, voters have long preferred bond issues to direct tax increases as a source of money for capital improvements undertaken by financially pinched governments. Inflation, which allows borrowers to repay debts with cheaper dollars, and the bonds' long maturity period, which allows for growth in the tax base that will be tapped to repay the bonds, make bonds more appealing, experts say.
But the approval rate for bonds so far this year is startlingly high.
For the past several decades voters across the nation have said ''yes'' more than 50 percent of the time to all bond issues on their election ballots. During the 1970s that approval rate, with the exception of two low dips in 1971 and 1975, ranged from 62 to 71 percent, according to Louis Meli, who keeps close tabs on such statistics for the Bond Buyer, a New York-based publication. But so far in 1982, he reports, voters nationally have been approving bond issues 82.7 percent of the time. They have, in effect, freed their governments to borrow $3. 4 billion, guaranteeing that it will be paid back with interest.
''I think it's happening out of necessity more than anything else,'' says Mr. Meli. ''Even conservative voters know that improvements and expansions are needed, regardless of economic conditions. And often voter concern is eased by promises from government officials that they won't raise taxes (to pay off the bonds) - that they'll get what they need from other sources like cigarette and liquor taxes. . . .''
Taxpayers are more aware these days that bond issues must be repaid with interest, says Pat McGuigan, of the Initiative and Referendum Report, a monthly tabulation of state and local ballot measures of more than local interest. But, he adds, ''they're generally seen as a little less burdensome form of taxation.''
While bonds seem to be more popular nationally than tax increases, there is considerable variation geographically.
In Iowa, for instance, which is in better fiscal shape than many Midwestern states, voters last month approved bond issues in at least half a dozen cities and counties. Des Moines voters gave the go-ahead to repair two swimming pools and build a new branch library. Even in Dubuque, a city hit hard by the recession, voters said ''yes'' to selling $825,000 worth of bonds for a new city park. The effect, said the Des Moines Register in a recent editorial, is to refute the ''political timidity that has sought to disparage public spending for the public good.''
Some states, faced with dwindling tax revenue and tight caps on tax increases , have reached for bond issues as one of the few open routes for needed dollars. California, which according to Mr. Meli ranks first in the nation in the number of bond issues placed on the ballot, will ask voters to approve borrowing an unusually high total of $1.5 billion on the November ballot. And Missouri, in a similar bind, got a needed ''yes'' from voters last month to float bond issues in support of a $600 million public-works program.
But several states such as Michigan and Ohio, which face severe financial difficulties and sense that voters may turn down their requests, have decided not to put as many bond issues on the ballot in the first place. Some have had to ask voters several times for approval. McGuigan notes that last year Ohio voters approved only 40 percent of the school property-tax increases proposed. This was several percentage points below the average approval rate prevailing since 1965.