VOL. 128 | NO. 228 | Thursday, November 21, 2013
Polls Open to Decide Sales Tax Increase
By Bill Dries
Memphis voters go to the polls Thursday, Nov. 21, to decide the fate of a sales tax hike for the second time in a year.
Polling places across the city are open Thursday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Voters in Tennessee House District 91 are also electing the newest member of the Shelby County delegation to Nashville, as they choose between Democratic nominee Raumesh Akbari and Libertarian candidate Jim Tomasik.
The two ballot items are the last in a series of 11 elections in Shelby County in three months.
Follow @tdnpols, www.twitter.com/tdnpols, for election returns as they are tabulated, and Web stories at The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com, recapping the early voting results and the final unofficial returns.
It was a year ago this month that Memphis voters and voters in unincorporated Shelby County defeated a proposed half-cent countywide sales tax hike.
The question on Thursday’s ballot is a half-cent increase in the city’s sales tax rate. About two-thirds of the estimated $47 million in revenue the increase would generate – $30 million – would go to fund an expansion of pre-kindergarten in Memphis.
But in the series of debates between the end of early voting and election day, partisans on both sides of the issue couldn’t agree what the referendum is about.
“You’re not voting on pre-K. You are voting on how to pay for it,” said former Shelby County Schools board member Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. at a Memphis Rotary Club debate on the matter Tuesday, Nov. 19.
“You are voting on pre-K,” answered Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn. “But to have pre-K, you have to pay for it.”
This is how the ballot question reads on voting machines:
“Shall there be levied an additional City of Memphis local option sales tax in the amount of one half percent (0.5%), the proceeds of which levy shall be held in trust by the Pre-K Commission until appropriated and then shall only be used to fund a Pre-Kindergarten program to be governed by the Pre-K Commission with all excess funds paid to the city government by June 30 of each year to be used by government solely to reduce the ad valorem property tax rate?”
Whalum argued city government, through the appointed Pre-K Commission, can’t be trusted to use the revenue for what the ballot questions says. And he added that the ballot question is vague and that a sales tax increase is an increase in the most regressive tax Memphians pay.
“I would ask Rotarians, who are famous for your contacts and circle of influence regarding other ways to pay, please take advantage of your contacts with federal legislators and state legislators,” he said. “If pre-K is as important as we all believe it is, let us pursue it from the bottom up and from the top down so that the resources are identified that provides education for our children without taxing to death those who can least afford it.”
Flinn argued the ballot question is more specific than the ballot question a year ago that failed. He countered that while the ballot question doesn’t mention dollar amounts or how many children would be covered in the pre-K expansion, it is specific about where the revenue goes.
“There are a great many unknown items on this. But where the money is going is not one of them,” Flinn said. “We don’t know what the birth rate is going to do in five years. … The idea that you can get an ironclad guarantee is simply the politics of fear. It’s the politics of distrust.
“That is why 66 percent of Memphians think the city is on the wrong track,” he added, citing recent poll results. “We all know we don’t like the status quo, but God forbid we do anything to change it.”