At the ballot box

In Nevada, election talk is all about 2008. But voters in plenty of other states will head to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots on local, county and state offices and issues. Among all the races to be decided, two ballot questions before Nevada neighbors deserve special attention.

Utah is the new front for the national school-choice movement. If voters approve Referendum 1, Utah would become the first state to make every child eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers that could be used to pay tuition at private schools. Wealthier parents, many of whom put their kids through private school and pay the taxes that support public schools, would receive no more than $500 per child. Low-income households would receive up to $3,000 per child, per year.

The idea behind Referendum 1 is simple enough: If all parents had the option of pulling their kids out of failing public schools, those campuses would, for the first time, have to respond to the pressure of competition or be put out of business. Not only would vouchers lead to the creation of many new private schools, they would hold public school monopolies accountable for failing to properly educate Utah’s children.

The state’s entire education establishment has united against Referendum 1 and campaigned furiously against school choice. The opposition isn’t about money; Utah spends about $7,500 per student, per year, and the average voucher under the ballot question would amount to only $2,000. If Referendum 1 passes, Utah’s public schools will actually have more money for fewer students.

No, this is about power. Teacher and administrator unions don’t want parents to take it from them. Today, if taxpaying parents think their child’s school is lousy, most are resigned to staying put. If Referendum 1 is approved by voters, they’ll be able to tell administrators to take their unresponsive bureaucracy and shove it.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, anti-growth “preservationists” and advocates of unlimited government power in zoning and land-use planning still can’t get over the fact that Beaver State voters struck a blow for property rights by approving Measure 37 back in 2004. That constitutional amendment requires municipalities and counties to provide fair compensation for property devalued by zoning restrictions or waive the land-use regulations altogether.

For decades, property owners who wished to sell farmland or forested areas for more productive purposes were blocked by environmentalists, NIMBYs and planning bureaucracies, purportedly to protect an area’s scenic value or “rural flavor.” Measure 37 allows governments to continue putting such restrictions on privately owned land, but now such takings come with a price tag. Denying a farm owner the chance subdivide his property for new homes obligates public agencies to pay for the land’s residential value.

Public officials and environmentalists moaned that they lacked the dough to force their agenda upon the uncooperative masses. They campaigned against Measure 37 and were routed. They sued to have it struck down, but couldn’t find a court to do their bidding. Now, only three years after failing to persuade voters to take their side, they’re marching before the electorate again.

Measure 49, placed on Tuesday’s ballot by the Oregon Legislature, would defang Measure 37 and absolve governments of much of the costs associated with it. It would place broad restrictions on the ability of landowners to subdivide property, significantly devaluing land across the state. It would give a landowner’s neighbor more power to dictate how property is used, as opposed to the landowner himself.

Property rights are fundamental in this country. If Oregon governments regain the power to restrict or crush them, what rights will they come for next?

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