Supporters and opponents agree on one thing: Sales tax fight headed to close finish

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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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After a million-dollar campaign blitz, supporters of Mecklenburg County’s sales tax increase are heading into Election Day with their own polls showing a tight race.

Supporters are making a final push for the quarter-cent tax with full-page newspaper ads and a wave of broadcast spots ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

“I feel confident,” said campaign consultant Brad Crone. “But our polling shows us it’s going to be a close election.”

The tax referendum headlines an election that has seen most Charlotte city races all but decided in September primaries. Voters also will elect three school board members as well as officials in Mecklenburg County’s six towns.

The measure would raise the sales tax a quarter-cent, to 7.5%. The tax — 5 cents on a $20 purchase — would raise $50 million a year. County commissioners have said they’ll allocate 45% ($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.

To pass the tax, supporters created the Partnership for a Better Mecklenburg. It has spent nearly $1 million on TV and radio ads, targeted mailers and professional consultants to promote the tax. The Mecklenburg Tax Alliance, the only organized opposition, has spent just over $1,000, according to a report filed this week.

But opponents have had help. One city council candidate has erected billboards urging a “thumbs down” on the referendum. The anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity has sponsored phone banks.

“We’ve presented our case and I think folks are seeing (that) it’s not the right tax, not the right time and not the right priorities,” said Republican Matthew Ridenhour, a former county commissioner who started the Tax Alliance to fight the referendum. “I do think it will be very close.”

Hundreds of supporters signed onto a full-page ad in Sunday’s Observer. Among them: Mayor Vi Lyles, former Mayor Harvey Gantt and former Bank of America Chairman Hugh McColl Jr. Opponents include Ridenhour and Democrats such as Commissioner Pat Cotham and former state Sen. Joel Ford.

Dueling arguments

Advocates aren’t getting help from the ballot.

By state law, there’s no mention of arts or parks or schools. Instead voters are asked to vote for or against: “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.”

Crone said the Partnership’s internal polls show that voters react most positively when told the tax would benefit students and expand greenways. So supporters have emphasized those — not the arts — in some of its ads.

“We have purposely promoted our positive strengths,” Crone said.

Critics call that disingenuous.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation,“ said Cotham. “Now they don’t even mention the arts.”

Cotham and other critics cite a litany of arguments. They say the sales tax is regressive, hitting poor people harder. It would push Mecklenburg’s sales tax to the maximum allowed by state law. And by so doing, it would allow no room to use the revenue for other needs like affordable housing or mass transit.

“We have to look broader,” Cotham said. “We have to have a better understanding of these overarching problems.”

Another criticism is that while commissioners promise to use the money for what they say they will, future commissioners are not obligated to.

“I’ve heard the criticism of the County Commission and how it might place the funds elsewhere,” Michael Marsicano, president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, says in a Sunday newspaper ad. “Today we trust our County Commission with $1.9 billion in tax revenues per year – they can be trusted with an additional $50 million for parks, arts and public education. And if they can’t, we will rally and vote them out. We’ve done it before.”

No ‘bright shiny object’

The county’s last sales tax referendum went down in flames.

In 2014 supporters wanted the tax primarily to boost school salaries. Smaller amounts would have gone to Central Piedmont Community College and the arts. It failed 61%-39%.

But that election saw turnout of about 40%. Tuesday’s is expected to be less than half that. And compared to the Partnership, the tax advocates behind 2014’s Together4Meck had a late start and a small budget.

“The campaign was fairly short on resources,” said Democratic Commissioner Trevor Fuller, who championed that referendum. “I see much more of a campaign this time.”

That could make it easier for supporters.

“Small turnout elections always benefit the high-dollar campaigns,” said Bryan Holladay, who runs a political public relations firm in Charlotte.

On the other hand, he said, while a sales tax increase would pay for a variety of new arts programs, classroom help and parks, some will see a lack of identifiable results. School bond referendums, for example, usually specify what and where new projects will be.

“There’s not this large list of what your investment is going to get you,” said Holladay, who has worked on successful bond campaigns. “(There’s) no bright shiny object, and that makes it a really hard sell.”

Strange bedfellows

Last week Charlotte City Council members postponed a vote on a $50 million contract to start work on the proposed Silver Line light rail expansion between Matthews and Belmont. Planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba told them that the outcome of Tuesday’s referendum “would really help us (know) how you address the sources of funding” for the Silver Line, which is estimated to cost up to $4 billion.

Transit advocates are just one group that would line up for the sales tax revenue.

“Win or lose, I believe there will be a discussion up here about what we need to do to adequately fund mass transit,” said Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander, who chairs the county’s legislative delegation.

City officials aren’t ready to have that discussion before Tuesday’s referendum.

“I see them as two separate conversations that have to happen,” said council member Julie Eiselt, a Democrat. “We don’t as a community have a list of priorities that everybody agrees on.”

Referendum supporters were polling in late October, after the start of early voting. Sam Spencer, a Democratic activist and tax opponent, said that’s unusual.

“Nobody polls after the voting has started unless they think they still have to move the needle,” he said. “Either way they’re close enough that they’re worried about it.”

The sales tax fight has created strange bedfellows. There are liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans on both sides.

“I have a lot of new Republican friends,” Spencer said.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.