Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Voters oust GOP, raise their own taxes

Durham County voters OK'd a transit tax Tuesday
Tuesday's municipal elections in Charlotte and across the state offered some unexpected results, especially if one considers that the state legislature is dominated by conservative, anti-tax Republicans. Voters in four N.C. counties voted to tax themselves, with Durham voters opting for two new taxes, one for transit.

In Charlotte, voters re-elected Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, over a conservative Republican and political newcomer, Scott Stone. That wasn't unexpected. But voters swept into office all four Democratic candidates for at-large City Council seats, ousting moderate incumbent Republican Edwin Peacock III  in favor of Claire Fallon, a planning commissioner and neighborhood activist, and Beth Pickering. Pickering had never run for office and just arrived in Charlotte five years ago from Denver, Colo.

That gives Democrats a 9-2 council majority, which I believe is more than at any time since the council went to districts in 1977. (Are any political historians out there to confirm or deny this?) The two lone Republicans, Andy Dulin and Warren Cooksey, didn't have Democratic opposition in their districts; Cooksey dispatched a Republican opponent in the primary.

But across the state, voters in four counties made a kind of history by agreeing to raise their own taxes, something that conventional political wisdom has said isn't likely during an economic downturn, or in a state that just last year sent to the General Assembly a slew of conservative Republicans.

A quick rundown:

Durham County voters approved (about 60-40 percent) a half-cent sales tax for transit, making it the state's second county, after Mecklenburg in 1998, to do so. Voters in Orange County (Chapel Hill) and Wake (Raleigh) are expected to face similar ballot measures next year, with Orange voting in the spring and Wake sometime later.  That should finally give the Triangle area a funding stream hefty enough to start building a long-awaited rail transit system of light rail and commuter rail.

Durham County voters also OK'd (57 percent) a quarter-cent sales tax for education.

Orange County passed a quarter-cent sales tax for school building improvements and economic development infrastructure. The county voters rejected the tax a year ago. This year it passed with almost 61 percent of the vote.

Buncombe County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for renovations and new buildings at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.

Montgomery County voters also approved a quarter-cent sales tax, for buildings at Montgomery County Schools and Montgomery Community College.

The N.C. Association of County Commissioners' website tally shows a clean sweep for those taxes for this year, with Cabarrus voters approving one in May, Halifax County in February. Compare that to 2010 results. The same quarter-cent sales tax was on the ballot in 23 counties at various times throughout that year. Of the nine votes before Nov. 3, seven were successful. Of those Nov. 2, all lost, including in Orange and Montgomery counties.  Does this mean the Nov. 2, 2010, anti-tax fervor was a one-time blip? Or was Nov. 8, 2011, the oddball election?

Sales taxes, of course, are an easier sell to most taxpayers than other types of tax. Suzanne Leland, a UNC Charlotte associate professor of political science, tells me voters usually prefer sales taxes over income or the most hated property taxes. Sales taxes, as Leland and many others point out, disproportionately hurt low-income households, where a higher proportion of income has to go for necessities such as housing, transportation, food, etc. Nevertheless, many voters consider them a more fair way to assess a tax.


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