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Robert Houk

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As I See It

Angry voters won’t approve even a needed sales tax hike

August 29th, 2011 10:00 am by Robert Houk

Officials from the Johnson City and Washington County school systems are exploring the idea of putting a 0.25 percent sales tax referendum on the ballot early next year. They shouldn’t bother. It doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of passing.
There’s been talk of putting the issue on the same ballot as the state’s presidential preference primaries. That would be a monumental mistake. Voters, particularly those eager to vote for a Republican candidate, don’t want to hear about tax increases. They are just itching to say “no” to what they believe to be a bloated government. A sales tax referendum would be just the outlet for venting that frustration.
School officials might have an easier time convincing city and county leaders to increase their respective property taxes by a few pennies for education. Even that seems to be an impossible mission in these volatile times.
I’m not saying school officials don’t have a legitimate need for more funding. It’s fairly obvious that Washington County schools are not being supported at the county’s true ability to pay. It’s also true that voters believe their current tax dollars can be stretched to adequately cover those needs if only waste and fraud were eliminated. After all, how many county employees does it take to mow a ball field?
It’s been nearly 20 years since a sales tax hike was approved by Washington County voters. The way things are shaping up currently, it might not happen again for another two decades.
As for not raising the sales tax any time soon, that would be OK by me. It’s a regressive tax that is already too high and too burdensome on citizens who can least afford to pay it.

The last sales tax hike in Washington County was approved in May 1994. City and county school officials banded together then to push passage of a countywide referendum to raise the local option sales tax from 2.25 percent to where it stands today at 2.50 percent. It was a close vote, with 6,720 voting for it and 5,208 voting against it. Just two years earlier, a sales tax referendum in November was defeated by a lopsided count of 10,266 for to 15,622 against.
Proceeds from the sales tax hike went to fund what city officials dubbed the People’s Education Plan. Much of the credit for passing the referendum was given to school board members from both systems, who put their backs and political clout into selling the plan. I don’t see that happening again. These are different times, and you have to do more than say, “It’s for the children,” to make a favorable impression on voters.
Attempts to raise the sales tax have been defeated soundly in recent years. A 2000 referendum failed by a vote of 11,788 against to 4,097 in favor. A subsequent referendum in 2004 also failed by a similar margin. I suspect a sales tax referendum on the March 2012 ballot would fare no better.
And we must not forget 2012 is a presidential election year. That means the “I only vote every four years” crowd will be out in full force. To put it diplomatically, these are not folks who normally keep up with local issues. You won’t see them at the polls for a City Commission election, nor will you see them standing in line to vote for county mayor. But they do find their way to a voting booth to vote for president. (I guess they think it’s the president who sets their local property tax rates.)
State election officials are expecting a heavy turnout for both the partisan primaries and general election next year. It’s probably not the best time to implement a major change in voting law, which Tennessee is foolishly doing with a new requirement that voters show a photo ID when they go to the polls. As one very smart election official told me last week, the people who vote only every four years will be the first to complain that this new provision violates their constitutional rights.
Regardless, let’s count on a record number of Tennesseans going to the polls next year. As I noted earlier, these will be angry voters who are fed up with President Obama, Congress and government in general. They’ll be in no mood to raise taxes on themselves. That does not bode well for passage of a sales tax referendum, regardless how noble or needed the measure is said to be.
Further complicating things is talk of repealing the 1994 sales tax hike. There have been inquiries made as to what it would take to get a referendum on the ballot to lower the existing sales tax rate. While it would be great to remove this burden from poor families, it is nonetheless irresponsible for proponents to call for gutting the current sales tax without detailing how those funds should be replaced. (Remember, all of the local sales taxes now collected in the county go to support schools.)
If cuts are what they have in mind, then supporters must supply voters with a line-by-line list of employees, sports programs and educational services they would cut from county’s school budget.

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