Voters deliver message on tax

Mecklenburg voters’ rejection of a sales tax hike felt like a punch to the gut Tuesday night for teachers and other supporters of education. The message, though, was not “We don’t care about teachers”; it was: “Let’s do this right.” And we can.

The quarter-cent sales tax would have generated about $35 million a year. About $28 million of that would have gone to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employee pay. The rest would have gone to Central Piedmont Community College, the arts and libraries.

Worthy causes, all, particularly teacher pay. North Carolina’s teachers ranked near the bottom nationally before legislators finally nudged them up with a pay hike this summer. Their pay still lags much of the nation and teachers are leaving the state and leaving the profession.

In other words, this community’s and state’s values were not aligned with public policy.

The outcry to remedy that seemed to rattle local officials, and five Democratic county commissioners slapped the sales tax on the ballot with little notice and no deliberation. If their intentions were sincere, their process was polluted. They spoke with few or no stakeholders – including the city, the schools, legislators, the Chamber and, oh yes, the public.

The tax money couldn’t be legally restricted to any certain use, and questions arose as to whether the additional money would quickly be supplanting, rather than supplementing, the county’s budget for schools. Voters never were told exactly how the money would be used at CMS and CPCC.

All of that was too much for voters, and CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison drove in the final nail by resigning Monday.

So now we have an opportunity. This community has an opportunity – a duty, really – to assess its needs, rank them by priority, then determine how much we can afford and how best to pay for it. Teacher pay would be high on the list. Other issues clamor for attention too, from transportation to homelessness to public safety to the arts. Leaders can initiate a community conversation – and generate the community buy-in that was lacking Tuesday.

Somewhere Tuesday night, we imagine, Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews was licking his lips, giddy at the notion of killing Mecklenburg’s ability to raise its sales tax once and for all, as he tried to do in this year’s legislative session. Even if he pulls that off, there are other avenues for a county wanting to invest in its own future.

That investment is vital. Voters, we believe, didn’t say stop; they said restart.