The size of the defeat for the “education” sales tax referendum in Tuesday’s election likely surprised many in Mecklenburg County Tuesday night. Whether you supported it or opposed it, it’s doubtful too many thought the margin would be over 20 points. (38.8% For, 61.2% Against to be exact.)
As someone who longs for transparent and honest government, it was very disappointing and hard to watch how this sales tax referendum unfolded from beginning to end. There were several troubling aspects which taken together make it feel like it was the right thing that this did not pass.
Was this a process that had community buy-in from the start? No. The Chamber of Commerce and even the School Board were taken off guard when the County Commissioners decided to put the tax on the ballot in a split 5-4 vote - mostly along party lines.
Was a sales tax the best way to fund CMS salaries long-term? No. It is too variable a revenue stream. What happens when the next economic downturn hits? Would those raises turn into pay cuts when sales tax revenue dips as it always does during a recession? Would the other organizations slated to receive funds from this tax face cuts to keep CMS salaries from falling? Too many outstanding questions were left unanswered.
Was the tax even a guaranteed source of revenue for education? No. While supporters of the tax claimed during the course of the debate that it would always be for education, the truth is that a future Board could have redirected this money to anything. This tax revenue would have been general revenue and not legally tied to education spending. The reason the ballot question on Tuesday did not mention education was that this was not an “education” tax. Those who supported the tax were anything but clear on this fact.
This last point came up at the candidate forum at River Run in Davidson. The candidates for NC House - 98 were asked whether or not they supported the tax increase. Republican John Bradford said he did not - citing this lack of a guarantee as his reason why. Democrat Natasha Marcus who supported the tax shot back that Bradford's stance was a "dodge". The truth is that Bradford was right.
But maybe the hardest thing to watch was how public institutions targeted to benefit from this tax, danced right up to the line on what was legal for them to do in promoting its passage. On more than one occasion they did things which were questionable and possibly over the line while pushing for the tax. In addition to a small body of case law, there are two general statutes in North Carolina that govern what can and cannot be done by public institutions regarding elections – including referendums. One set of laws is about spending public money. The other is about “electioneering” around polling places.
G.S. 160A-499.3 states “a municipality shall not use public funds to endorse or oppose a referendum, election or a particular candidate for elective office.” G.S. §163-166.4(a) states “No person or group of persons shall hinder access, harass others, distribute campaign literature, place political advertising, solicit votes, or otherwise engage in election-related activity in the voting place or in a buffer zone.”
At some point both of these laws were bent well past their breaking point by our public institutions and officials, but since nobody will likely challenge them in court nothing will be done about it. A cynic would say our public institutions know that they will not be challenged in an expensive court case, so they have no fear of stepping out of bounds when it suits their needs.
The library system and CMS created fliers that indirectly promoted passing the tax. They technically stayed within bounds and did not explicitly encourage voting for the tax. However, both fliers certainly implied bad things would happen if it did not pass. The Library was challenged on the placement of its fliers inside facilities that also served as early voting sites. To avoid running afoul of the electioneering law these were removed – a sign the library knew they were pushing the legal limits.
The Arts and Science Council and the Town of Davidson went even further. They both explicitly encouraged voting for the tax in materials they created. The ASC had multiple posts on its website encouraging people to vote for the tax. Davidson Mayor John Woods was encouraging the same in the town’s latest newsletter which came out late last week just prior to election-day. It’s hard to see how the ASC’s actions do not break rules governing non-profits. The same could be said about Davidson’s use of a publicly funded newsletter to encourage passing the tax.
As County officials go back to the drawing board on the question of funding education, the size of this defeat as well as the actions of these institutions need to be taken into account when deciding how to do it. Using questionable, strong-arm tactics to raise revenue has proven not to work. Maybe now it’s time for Commissioners to figure out how to live within the County’s existing means.
Bonus Observation: Check out this interactive map for where the sales tax actually passed. It's telling that Davidson precinct 206 was one of the few precincts where it succeeded (just barely). Overall it, still failed for the two town precincts, but Davidson was closer as a municipality than any other in Mecklenburg County.
Having the Mayor use public funds to tell everyone to go vote for something likely made the difference.