Politics & Government

The battle over a sales tax referendum heats up as early voting begins

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2019 election coverage

Mecklenburg County voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect local officials and school board members — and decide whether to raise their taxes.

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Even with a million-dollar campaign, TV ads and hundreds of prominent backers, supporters of Mecklenburg County’s sales tax referendum know they’re in for a tough fight.

“We knew it was going to be a heavy lift,” said county commissioner Susan Harden, a Democrat. “(But) I feel so strongly that this is the right thing for the community.”

She’s working to pass the measure that would raise the sales tax a quarter-cent, to 7.5%. That would raise $50 million a year for the arts, parks and education.

Proponents are running a full-fledged campaign, spending more than $1 million on TV and radio ads, targeted mailers and professional consultants.

In contrast, opponents are expecting their first shipment of signs this week. Their budget: $25,000.

“We feel there is growing support for voting against it,” said Republican Matthew Ridenhour, a former commissioner and organizer of the new Mecklenburg Tax Alliance.

Each side claims bipartisan support. There are progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans on both sides.

County commissioners have said they would allocate 45% of the new revenue ($22.5 million) to the arts; 34% ($17 million) to parks and greenways; and 16% ($8 million) to education. Another 5% ($2.5 million) would go to towns for arts and park projects.

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The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra routinely draws a crowd for its Summer Pops series. Early voting has begun on a referendum on the ballot that would raise the sales tax a quarter-cent in the county, to 7.5%. That would raise $50 million a year for the arts, parks and education. Observer file photo

But that’s not what voters will see on the ballot.

By state law, they’ll be asked to vote yes or no on: “Local sales and use tax at the rate of one-quarter percent (0.25%) in addition to all other State and local sales and use taxes.”

“If I saw a quarter-cent sales tax and I didn’t know what it was for, I probably wouldn’t vote for it,” said Darrel Williams, who chairs the Partnership For A Better Mecklenburg, which is pushing for passage of the referendum. “It creates a very big challenge.”

Selling voters

Supporters know that selling a tax is hard. A 2014 Mecklenburg referendum to raise the sales tax for education and the arts failed 61% to 39%. It only passed in Davidson and a cluster of precincts near central Charlotte.

Forty-two N.C. counties have approved similar tax referendums, though they’ve failed in 34 other counties, according to the General Assembly. Only two counties, Durham and Orange, have raised their sales tax to 7.5%, the maximum allowed.

Advocates are trying to make sure people know what the referendum is about. Then they to persuade them to support it and vote for it. They expect a low-turnout race, particularly with most Charlotte city races all but decided.

Consultant Brad Crone of Raleigh, working for the pro-tax side, said he expects a turnout below 15%.

“Rather than have to worry about a 70% turnout, with a 12% to 13% turnout a volunteer phone bank can make a lot of difference,” he said. “Once voters learn about the sales and use tax they support the referendum.”

The Cross Charlotte Trail is designed to connect greenways throughout the city into one 26-mile urban trail. Observer file photo

Supporters say the county’s park system ranks near the bottom among U.S. metro areas. The sales tax could help chip away at a $1 billion backlog.

They also say arts funding is in crisis. From 2005 to 2008, the Arts & Science Council, a pass-through agency for local arts organizations, received $16 million or more annually. But a year later, with the recession in full swing, revenue fell to $12 million.

Since then ASC revenue has continued to drop or remain stagnant.

Advocates argue that public funding will allow the arts to “reduce economic disparities and allow programs to reach deep into neighborhoods across the county.”

“When you look at other communities across the country, they’ve come to the conclusion that for everyone to participate in the arts we need public funding,” Williams said. “Otherwise only a privileged few will benefit.”

Other priorities

Critics see it differently.

“It’s not a community problem, it’s a problem for the arts community,” said Democratic commissioner Pat Cotham. “They haven’t done a good job of raising money. Instead they want the default to be the taxpayer, the guy walking to the bus to go to a job.”

Cotham believes the plan was “thrown together” without weighing other priorities such as affordable housing or public transit. And future county boards could change the allocations.

For Democrat Ray McKinnon, pastor of South Tryon Community United Methodist Church, the problem is that the tax would max out the county’s ability to tap the sales tax.

“This is our last bite of the apple,” he said. “The General Assembly under Democrats capped it at 7 ½%. To me that means the last (quarter-cent) has to be spent on the most pressing priorities of the community.”

Charlotte’s Black Political Caucus endorsed the tax in a close vote. McKinnon, who is African American, said he expects the division will be reflected by black voters. The sales tax is regressive, that is, felt more by the poor, he said.

“Every regressive tax impacts the most vulnerable among us,” McKinnon said. “It is all ‘on top of,’ ‘on top of,’ ‘on top of.’ And if you’re already struggling all these things have impact.’

The sales tax does not apply to most groceries, prescription drugs and gasoline.

Some critics are simply opposed to higher taxes. Others say it would put Mecklenburg at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding counties.

“Those are all valid reasons to be opposed,” Ridenhour said. “What we’re trying to do is educate people on those reasons and then they can formulate their own reasons.”

‘Think big again’

The marketing campaign for the tax says it would allow benefits to be spread throughout the community.

It features videos of people of all ages, races and ethnicities pushing the message that the tax is for “all of us.”

Kids say it would allow them to take more field trips. Seniors talk about the advantage of more parks. And teachers say they’d welcome the additional support.

In one video, Harden calls the tax “transformational.” In another, former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. asks if Mecklenburg is willing to “think big again.” He notes that the tax would amount to just 5 cents on every $20.

“It’s a small price to pay to make a big difference in the lives of our students, by increasing teacher pay and funding field trips to our arts, science, history and cultural venues,” McColl says. “Let’s... make sure we have a quality of life that lifts every family in Mecklenburg County.”

Ridenhour said his side doesn’t need an expensive marketing campaign.

“We may not have the big bucks to do a TV ad campaign,” he said. “The more they spend the more exposure we get.”

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