Locals move to raise taxes in tough time

If local governments are the “laboratories of democracy,” as they are often called, the white-coat scientists presiding over them — elected local officials — are brewing some potentially explosive concoctions for upcoming elections. Cities, counties and public school districts across the nation are placing tax hikes on the ballot for fall referenda.

Just look at some examples. If someone were to catalog all of these, billions would be in the offing.

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Hillsborough County, Fla., (Tampa) wants to raise the sales tax by a penny to fund a commuter rail plan. Other central Florida counties are likely to be doing likewise.

The Seminole County Florida school board has decided to ask voters to approve a half-penny sales tax for school maintenance.

Voters across Illinois will be deciding school tax issues. Springfield’s is just one of many school systems that will vote on sales taxes for facilities in the Land of Lincoln.

Across the state line in Indiana, Zionsville voters will decide on new school taxes as well.

Aiken, S.C., voters will decide on a one-cent sales tax increase that will produce $2.45 million for public works projects. The only detail still in the balance is whether a group of not-for-profits will get a share of the tax revenues.

Orange County, N.C.’s, Board of Commissioners recently voted unanimously to add a quarter-cent sales-tax referendum onto the November ballot.

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee County’s board approved a 1 cent sales tax referendum in November for parks, transit, emergency medical services and property tax relief. The measure would cost taxpayers $130 million annually.

Forest Lake, Minn., voters are being asked to decide proposed new property tax levies this November.

Madison, Wis., Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is urging a referendum on a new half-cent sales tax in that city.

Memphis, Tenn., voters are being urged to back a property tax increase for education..

In perhaps a preview of things to come, beleaguered Orange Beach, Ala., already spattered by BP oil, will hold a referendum on Sept. 14 to raise property taxes.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon presents his voters the same draconian choice that other local leaders will soon explain to their constituents: Either raise taxes to cover an anticipated budget deficit of $750,000, or get ready for service cuts. Otherwise the mayor has no options to deal with a slow economy and nose-diving property values.

There are, of course, great back-stories to all these referenda that make each one unique. Some of the measures were passed on split votes. Others were approved unanimously. Some come on the heels of recently rejected tax hikes. Others extend existing taxes due to expire. Some measures enjoy establishment approval through chambers of commerce to teacher associations.

But all these tax proposals must collectively confront a common problem of timing. Ponder these quotes from opponents of the Hillsborough rail plan: “This is the wrong time to put a one-cent sales tax on a community that is losing their houses, losing their jobs” and “Economics 101 dictates that in a recession you don’t raise taxes.”

Will voters reject economics and increase their tax burden to maintain all existing services or invest to build a stronger future economy? For many voters, the choice will be easy. For others, it’s a tough decision.

Seminole County school board member Diane Bauer, a tax hike opponent, puts it well when she says that voters in her district are at a “philosophical crossroads,” the interchange of paying higher taxes and living within existing means.

My own experience says that the deciding factor in the outcome of these referenda has much to do with the reservoir of trust and credibility that local governments and schools have created over the years. If the reservoir is deep and wide, voters will consider the requests with open minds.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.