Abstract

Direct democracy is often touted as a means of reining in the administrative state, but it could also hinder the performance of public organizations. In particular, we argue that bargaining dynamics between voters and government officials can lead to costly administrative disruptions. We explore this issue by estimating the impact of Ohio tax referenda on school district administration using a regression discontinuity approach. The results suggest that administrators in districts where referenda failed sought to insulate core functions from revenue declines. Nonetheless, referendum failure (as opposed to passage) led to lower instructional spending, teacher attrition, and lower student achievement growth. Spending and performance generally rebounded within a few years, however, as districts eventually secured approval for a subsequent tax proposal. These results illustrate how involving citizens in decision-making can entail short-term transaction costs in the form of decreased administrative performance, which in this case may have had lasting achievement effects for students attending school in the wake of a referendum failure.

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