On the road (tax)

Tuesday the Alachua County Commission wisely chose to postpone action on the proposal for a county-wide sales tax to fund transportation needs, even if, as reported, it was for the wrong reason, namely, waiting to see what the Gainesville City Commission would do on Thursday.

What’s wrong with that?  They need to wait even longer.  Here are three better reasons to delay final action:

  1. If it ain’t baked don’t serve it.  There’s no need to rush.  The Supervisor of Elections won’t be able to finalize the November ballot until August 27 at the earliest. And it’s clear from the news report that county commissioners are cluelessly quibbling over fiendishly clever ways to slice up the baby.
  2. The support of city voters is essential for passage. The majority of voters on the tax are in Gainesville. Wait for the dust to settle from the city commission election and the mood of those voters will be much clearer. The city commission will have a new makeup in May, possibly a dramatically different makeup.  The most outspoken advocate for non-automobile transportation will be term-limited off the commission, and two incumbents face reelection challenges.
  3. The sooner a ballot proposal is finalized the longer the opposition will have to attack it.

As someone who’s been actively involved in successful campaigns to oppose sales tax initiatives in the past, I can state definitively what the most compelling argument is to defeat a proposal such as this: “Just because they say this is what they’ll do, there’s no telling what they’ll do after it passes.”

These are the big considerations:

  1. Forget the 2012 sales tax fiasco, and take your cues from the 2004 referendum.  That one failed by a margin of 53 to 47 percent, by far the narrowest defeat of any such referendum in local history.  Why was it so close?  Because it had a controversy-free list of projects, but more importantly, because it made the project list part of the ordinance itself and thus almost impervious to change.  Rather than throwing up their hands in defeat, that county commission should have come back with the same proposal two years later and strongly emphasized that aspect of the proposal.  The lesson: make it next to impossible to change the project priorities–for both the county and the city of Gainesville–and make that the centerpiece of the campaign for its passage.
  2. Make the roads proposal for repair and maintenance, not new construction.  Enumerating the immediate needs and prioritizing them should be straightforward engineering decisions, not political decisions.
  3. Don’t screw it up by putting in deal killers. Everyone recognizes the need for this initiative, but even if  it passes it’s likely to be by a very slim margin.  Don’t include provisions that impel people to vote no for one single reason alone.  Whittle away a percent here and another percent there, and pretty soon passage is hopeless.

In plain English, here are the potential deal killers:

  • Make the tax a whole cent on the dollar, not a fraction.  Fractional sales taxes are so annoying there are people who’ll vote against them for that one reason.  But there’s no one who says, “I’d vote for it if it were three-quarters of a cent, but I can’t go along with a whole cent, that’s just greedy.” No one says that. No fractions! Yes, the people have voted for them in the past — that’s how they know they’re annoying!
  • A shorter duration is better than a longer one.  You could even make the duration for eight years and provide for a reauthorization vote in four years, saying, “If we haven’t kept our word, then you can vote not to continue it, but at least give it a chance.”
  • Undermine the argument about the regressive nature of a sales tax by including much-needed improvements in bus service to the lower-income, non-student urban areas, then make sure they know what those benefits will be.
  • Finally, do whatever you have to do to prevent the inclusion of untested, futuristic  proposals and make it all about meeting current needs.  We all know that means no bus rapid transit, trolleys, light rail, nor even an over-emphasis on express buses.  Bike routes, on the other hand, really are not controversial unless they physically intrude on roadways.  While they could certainly be overdone, nobody wants cars and bikes to compete for space on busy streets.

The 2012 proposal was such a disaster that the only thing to learn from it is that there’s nothing to learn from it. It was so bungled, so doomed, from the get-go that there was no need for an organized effort to defeat it.

The lessons that need to be learned are in the 2004 referendum and recent commission elections: carve it in stone, and don’t erode its support base with single-issue turn-offs.

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