I have three things to say about this.
University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said the outcome of both county bond propositions, as well as the Katy stadium, is indicative of resistance among conservative voters to big-ticket spending items they believe are not necessary, or, in the case of the Dome, that could be paid for with private instead of public dollars.
Rottinghaus noted that dozens of redevelopment proposals from private companies have been floated for the Dome since the Astros moved out after the 1999 season. None of them have panned out, but Rottinghaus said county leaders did not adequately address a “burden of proof” to explain why the proposed “New Dome Experience” project had to be paid for with public money.
“These are fairly large numbers, and I think people look at that amount of money and are worried about the rising tax burden of their house,” he said.
Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who conducted the pre-election poll, said the outcome of both county bonds proposals came down largely to lax, or disparate, campaigning by county leaders, not an unwillingness to spend.
“I just don’t think there was any significant effort to explain to people why they were doing this,” Stein said. “They just wanted the voters have a chance to say yes or no, which they clearly did.”
University of St. Thomas political scientist Jon Taylor pointed out that historic preservation groups, who drove a rented truck dubbed the “Dome Mobile” around Houston in the two weeks leading up to the election, actually campaigned fairly hard for the bond.
Considering there was no organized opposition, though, Taylor attributed the outcome to a “quiet conservative backlash,” with many voters “quietly without telling anybody saying ‘No, we are not going to accept this.’ And they didn’t.”
He and Rottinghaus also said they think that all the bonds approved last year could have led to “bond fatigue” for some voters.
“The voters may be wary of going back to what they consider a dry well,” Rottinghaus wrote. “Combine that with a growing sense that government should handle their fiscal matters more responsibly,” and you get “limited support for the Dome and the joint processing center.”
1. I doubt at this point that any of these professors have seen precinct data from this election yet. I know I haven’t. In the absence of such objective data, people will be influenced by their own opinions in explaining a vote like this. I personally lean closer to Prof. Stein’s explanation – all due respect, but driving a billboard around town doesn’t meet my definition of “campaigning hard”; to the best of my recollection, I got no mail, received no phone calls, or saw any ads relating to the Dome referendum. My personal opinion, as I have mentioned before, is that I think many people had become cynical about the whole thing. I think they didn’t trust the County after so many years of inaction and false starts, and I think they weren’t impressed by the New Dome plan. I do agree that many people were not willing to have their property taxes raised to renovate the Dome, but I think this was more about priorities than a general anti-spending mood. I base my opinions on anecdotes and hearsay, mostly resulting from talking to a few people on Tuesday night and from reading the arguments over the Dome at places like the Swamplot comments. I freely admit these are my own entirely non-scientific impressions, and I make no claim about their objective veracity.
2. To add on to Prof. Stein’s point about the city bonds from last year, I will note that Prop 6, the statewide referendum to create a $2 billion water infrastructure fund, received over 75% of the vote in Harris County (see page 2 here). That’s not quite the same as a bond, but that did have organized opposition who clearly cast it as a spending issue, yet that had little to no effect here, or overall. That said, the electorate for the city bonds in 2012 would be much more Democratic than the county voters this year, so the comparison to last year’s vote needs to be kept in perspective.
3. “Bond fatigue”, like “ballot fatigue”, strikes me as a lazy and meaningless expression that poli sci profs sometimes reach for when some pesky reporter is pressing them to explain something for which there is at best insufficient data. Let us please agree to drop these expressions from the vernacular.