Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Little Rock voters approve sales tax increase

Posted By on Tue, Sep 13, 2011 at 9:48 PM

It's a win for the editorial page of the Arkansas Times. Both Little Rock sales tax measures pass — roughly 53.1 to 46.9

Let's go back to the start of the evening, because it's important.

Early votes showed a solid 2-1 preference (roughly 2,000 to 1,000 in early votes) for the Little Rock sales tax increase — a penny jump through two measures over the current half cent tax to raise $500 million over the next 10 years and increase the city's operating budget by 26 percent annually.

There's hardly a difference between votes for the 5/8ths of a cent operational tax and the 3/8ths of a cent "capital" tax, which wrapped some police and fire needs around a $38 million economic development slush fund demanded by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce leaders who control city government.

The early vote was designed to be pro-tax. Poll voting wasn't so favorable. But the tax still emerged victorious.

Mayor Mark Stodola and the chamber will tout this as a ratification of their vision, but they are clearly wrong. These results show a marked change from polling by the Arkansas Times. Our polling showed broad support for the tax (62 percent for operations), but a 12-14 point swing between support for the tax and support for City Hall and the mayor. The city needs more money. I've never argued otherwise. I think they sought too much and for some dubious purposes, but voters put any doubts about city government aside in the interests of larger interests — police, fire, streets. The actual election-day polling put the margin much closer and I think city officials should take note.

FOR EXAMPLE: The Bess Chisum Y, a racially mixed neighborhood, voted against the tax about 60-40. That's not the type of margin that could overcome the early voting (there was only one poll, located in the heart of city government country), but it defied the polling that showed black support for the tax.

It will be the first sales tax increase in, what?, 17 years. In theory, a growing city doesn't need tax increases. Growth brings ever more money through the elastic base of a sales tax. But Little Rock's real growth is negligible and it has lost shopping power to suburbs and the Internet.

The city can't plead money any more with this tax windfall. Surely prosperity will rain down on us in a mighty stream with the corporate welfare money built into the tax plan.

Vigilance is in order, however. The city callled these operating and capital millages, but the ballot speciified no guaranteed spending purposes for the tidal wave of new tax money. It's all fungible. It could be a huge wasted pot of new money if voters don't keep close tabs on city government. Past practice suggests that would be in order.

OBSERVATIONS: Pitiful turnout, about 22,000 of 111,000 registered voters — 20 percent. This is by design of the proponents. It was a special election on an obscure Tuesday with no major media spending, only targeted spending to people identified as likely tax voters. The city spent more than $112,000 at last report and that figure could double in post-election reports. Opponents will spend under $10,000. The city wouldn't even disclose how the money was spent specifically, but you can be sure street money went to a lot of those people waving professionally produced signs in recent days. We must await passage of time to learn what the mayor gave the real estate lobby for a huge infusion of cash to the campaign, including $20,000 from the National Association of Realtors. The only way to explain a national presence in a local campaign is a belief it would be rewarded with policies friendly to the national lobby's interest — that is, in opposition to development impact fees, which Little Rock has always been loathe to raise.

FASCINATING: Though I've talked to a lot of people who felt, like me, that splitting a vote on the two tax proposals made sense, that just didn't happen. The votes on the two proposal were virtually identical.

NOTE: The tax succeeded by about 1,730 votes. The early votes (constricted by city design to City Hall neighborhood and not citywide as in most elections) gave the tax a 1,000-vote margin. If the city had allowed early voting to be citywide, they might have lost. They knew that. That's why the election was constructed this way. It was a cynical, dishonest effort by cynical, dishonest people who do not want democracy to prevail when it comes to their money.

PS — Some of you might not have known I was joking a bit with my opening sentence. The Times endorsed the tax increases. But I don't believe much in the vote influence of editorial endorsements. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette recommended "no" votes, for example. I've said all along that I favored the operational increase, but not the capital increase. But, what the heck. Let's say the Times passed this tax increase. I'm always for getting in front of a parade.

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