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A taxing start to referendum push

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Courtesy of Trevor Fuller -
Trevor Fuller

Persuading voters to impose a higher sales tax on themselves is no easy task under the best of circumstances. Voters around the state have rejected 65 of 92 sales tax referendums since 2007. So commissioners supporting a higher tax in Mecklenburg County really can’t afford the rocky start they’ve embarked upon so far.

No one of their actions by itself has been egregious. Taken together, however, they have a campaign stumbling at the starting line – the very moment it needed to come out of the gate on a sprint.

It started when commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller, Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke and three other Democrats on the Mecklenburg board of commissioners concocted their plan to put the quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot, largely intended for teacher raises, with little input from other stakeholders. The other commissioners learned about the initiative days before the June vote. Organizers had minimal communication with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the city of Charlotte, the business community, the legislature and the public, even though each group is directly affected by the move. That’s probably not the best way to win crucial early support.

Last week, Fuller bristled when Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour asked that the county clerk record the minutes at a meeting between CMS and county leaders about the referendum. Ridenhour had hoped to attend the meeting but was told he and other commissioners were not allowed. Given that, and given the importance of the topic, he at least wanted a summary of the meeting provided to commissioners.

Fuller shot back that he would not have the clerk be Ridenhour’s “personal stenographer” and suggested that because Ridenhour opposes the referendum, he has no right to be informed about it as talks progress. The tone and content of Fuller’s response was surprisingly and unnecessarily defensive. Fuller instead should be going out of his way to keep his board and the public informed.

Also last week, Clarke asked County Attorney Marvin Bethune the extent to which the county could use its (taxpayer-funded) resources to give the public “the facts” about the referendum. Innocuous enough, perhaps, except it’s a thin line between providing the public “the facts” about this referendum and promoting it. Clarke might want to publicize one set of facts, then opponents might want to use government resources to publicize other facts – including that commissioners can’t guarantee the money will be used primarily for teacher pay raises, as advertised. Better for the county to let advocacy groups and the press lay out the facts and let the voters decide.

All of this seems to be a bit premature in any case. How can the public judge the validity of having local government pick up a state responsibility before it even knows what the state itself will do? Let’s have legislators approve a teacher-pay plan first, then decide whether it’s wise for Mecklenburg shoppers to augment that pay.

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