Sales tax lesson: Tulsa voters not easy to sway
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, November 11, 2012
11/11/12 at 4:51 AM
The only thing surprising about the failure of the Vision2 package was that the margins of defeat for the two propositions were not greater.
On second thought, it's also surprising that some city and county leaders didn't see this resounding defeat coming. Our readers sure let us know loud and clear they didn't care for this plan.
While the reasons for rushing the Vision2 package onto the ballot may have been understandable, and maybe even justifiable, the defeats make it clear anew that voters just are not going to be sweet-talked, bullied, threatened or pressured into supporting something they don't feel right about.
Those of us who have followed local elections for many years have seen this before. If leaders aren't willing to abide by the lessons learned from mistakes of the past, they're almost surely doomed to repeat them.
As most readers know, the proposed $748.8 million Tulsa County Vision2 sales tax package went down to defeat at the polls Tuesday.
Proposition 1, which would have funded airport industrial park improvements and equipment and a deal-closing fund for attracting and expanding businesses, was the primary motivation for the package. It would have helped out three major airport-based employers, notably American Airlines. Local leaders said there was some urgency to act in hopes of helping American Airlines to get out of bankruptcy and stay in Tulsa.
Proposition 2 would have funded quality-of-life projects across the county.
The package would have been funded by an extension of the countywide Vision 2025 sales tax, which is set to expire in 2017.
What went wrong
As it turns out, most if not all of the projects and plans included in Vision2 can be justified. There is merit to improving the public facilities at the airport to attract or retain business. The deal-closing fund, business leaders say, is a necessity these days to sweeten proposals to interested businesses. And the quality-of-life projects are ideas that have been batted around in some cases for many years.
But voters didn't buy any of it. The airport improvements proposition failed with 56 percent opposed, and the quality-of-life proposition failed with 54.6 percent opposed - fairly high disapproval margins, considering Tulsa-area voters tend to support such initiatives.
Why did they turn thumbs down? According to the input we've been getting here at the paper for weeks, here's a smattering of what went wrong:
- Voters seemed to have little confidence the money would change the course of American Airlines' future. Even though local leaders insisted there would be enforceable guarantees regarding payroll and job numbers, many Tulsans felt that the bankruptcy situation meant any guarantees were iffy. And, some voters didn't like the idea of helping out some local employers but not others. Our readers also expressed the opinion that these airport-based employers should have to shoulder more of the burden for facility improvements - especially specialized equipment - through sharing costs or higher rents.
- The deal-closing fund concentrated too much power and money in the hands of too few people, some voters felt. (A public trust made up of the three Tulsa County commissioners, the mayor of Tulsa and the mayors of three other cities in the county would have been in charge.) If there were detailed criteria laid out for this decision-making, it wasn't absorbed by the electorate. And the fact the fund wasn't capped - it could have ended up two or three times bigger than estimated - was bothersome to some.
- The project lists were not set in stone - local ordinances, that is - as in previous sales-tax plans. Heck, in some cases no project list at all was put forth. So in the minds of voters, there was no mechanism in place to oversee the spending of the funds.
- The plan was too rushed and voters had little opportunity to express their views about it. While it's true the American Airlines situation did create the need for urgency, voters clearly weren't persuaded that throwing a few hundred million dollars at that problem would necessarily resolve it.
- The time line was problematic. The Vision 2025 tax doesn't expire until 2017. That's five years from now! A lot can happen in five years, but if this had been approved, one of our major funding sources would have been tied up for a very long time.
- Lack of support and/or the outright opposition on the part of some officials likely was very damaging. (Several Tulsa city councilors were quite vocal about their opposition.) If all the area leadership couldn't be persuaded to support the plan, why in the world would anyone expect the rest of us to get on board?
Tulsa's sales-tax approach for major spending initiatives has a long and instructive history, some of which I detailed on this page a few weeks ago. The lessons of the failures experienced over the past few decades are clear-cut: When voters feel like their views aren't being considered, when they feel they haven't had enough time to study propositions, when they feel the justifications for the spending aren't that strong, and when they feel there aren't strong enough assurances about how the money will be spent, they will let their leaders know.
And they did.
Let's hope voter confidence in sales-tax initiatives has not been adversely affected by this latest effort. We all know local leaders were in a tough situation because of the American Airlines bankruptcy and felt they had to act quickly. Well, quick action was taken, and the situation isn't any better. But at least voters have helped show the way it has to be if local leaders want their help.
Original Print Headline: Another sales-tax lesson
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, flanked by Twan Jones (top left) and Tulsa County Republican Chairman J.B. Alexander (top right), speaks against the Vision2 tax plan during a rally held by the Citizens for a Better Vision at City Hall in Tulsa on Oct. 8. Voters rejected both Vision2 propostions on Nov. 6. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World file