The local chapter of Americans for Prosperity hosted a “mayday” event Thursday evening at the McSwain Ag Center in Sanford, calling it a “distress call” to defeat the .25-cent sales tax issue on next week’s ballot. About 35 or 40 people attended and saw presentations from two staffers from the John Locke Foundation.
You can read reporter Gordon Anderson’s account of the meeting in today’s Herald.
I have a great deal of respect for Lloyd Jennings, who heads up the local AFP chapter, as well as state AFP Director Dallas Woodhouse and many of the fine people at the John Locke Foundation, who do some wonderful work. But last night’s presentations featured the kind of fear-mongering and misleading claims that confounds the JLF’s detractors. In many ways it was a disappointing night that didn’t live up to its billing.
I wasn’t there infiltrating the event, even though The Herald has endorsed the sales tax measure on the ballot. I have attended a number of AFP events and salute Jennings for his heads-up work and appreciate AFP’s mission, which is to educate citizens about economic policies and mobilize them as advocates in the public policy process. But aside from opening remarks by Jennings, it was mostly the JLF show, with staffers Becki Gray and Terry Stoops making presentations – Gray’s essentially summarizing JLF’s recent “Regional Brief” about the sales tax and Stoops’ consisting of a broad overview of Lee County Schools spending over the years. The presentations were designed to convince you that Lee County was overtaxed (true) and that because the school system’s spending has increased so much, and because the county had plenty of cash reserves, the sales tax increase should be soundly defeated.
That’s where the problems started. These were the kinds of “superficial” arguments we touched on in our editorial, which you can read elsewhere in this blog (I posted it Sunday).
Among my observations from last night’s meeting:
– Gray talked about the $1.6 million Lee County had spent on “corporate welfare” over the last few years, calling those payments “bribes” that put other businesses at a competitive disadvantage. What Gray was really talking about, of course, was incentives. JLF opposes incentives paid to businesses and industries. I won’t outline all the pros and cons of incentives here, except to say in North Carolina, they’ve become a necessary evil; we hate ’em, but because everyone else is doing them, we’re at a competitive disadvantage if we don’t. At any rate, counting the $1.6 million in incentives awarded by the county as part of the $10 million the JLF counts as revenues that could be diverted to avoid having the sales tax implemented…it’s nice in theory, but not close to realistic. My friend Chad Adams, who works for the Locke Foundation, and I have spent hours talking about incentives. My take on it is like this: imagine if baseball legalized performance-enhancing steroids. It’d be horrible and would take a lot of fun out of the game…but if you played, and found your skills far behind those of players you were fighting for playing time against, wouldn’t you take them, even though you didn’t believe in them? What if it meant getting a roster spot and feeding your family? Incentives are the legalized steroids of economic development.
– the comment was made that sales tax supporters are claiming that the tax (and I’m paraphrasing the comment here) ” ‘will only cost you about a cup of coffee a day,’ but it’s actually a lot more than that.’ ” This was a problematic statement. Based on average retail spending in the county, the .25-cent sales tax increase (from 6.75 percent to 7 percent) will only cost the average family about $25 per year, according to the “Fair Tax” group headed up by the Chamber to promote the tax. Now I know the AFP and the JLF think this Chamber group is aligned with the devil himself, and they don’t trust their numbers…but $25 is the equivalent of $10,000 in annual spending on items on which the tax would be calculated (not including most non-prepared foods, prescription drugs and cars). It’s a good chunk of spending. A property tax increase of 3.5 cents to raise the same revenue will cost the average homeowner about $47, according to this same group, by the way. Assuming the sales tax passes, that $25 a year is equivalent to only about 7 cents a day. Assuming you only drink coffee on weekdays, that’s still only 10 cents a day. I’m not sure where you can get coffee for a dime these days…so to say “it’s going to cost you a lot MORE than a cup of coffee a day” is very misleading.
– Stoops talked about the increase in local education expenditures and showed some slides supporting his premise that Lee County Schools were overspending compared to student growth. There may be truth to that, but the problem with his data is that he didn’t discuss how unfunded mandates or additonal operating expenses related to new school construction contributed to the increase in spending. I don’t doubt Stoops has done his research, but you can present numbers in a lot of different ways to support a lot of different theories, based on what’s convenient for you. If you’re going to show off your new coin, show me both sides.
– speakers criticized the county for supporting the tax partly because the commissioners couldn’t be bound to any promises that the tax revenues would be used for repairs and renovations…in other words, since the commissioners’ apparent commitment to use the funds to help make repairs at Lee Senior isn’t binding, it’s a bad idea. But later in the presentation the county was criticized again because, “We don’t know what the plan is for the money!” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…
– there was talk about the county’s reserve fund, but no discussion of the county’s debt capacity. They go hand in hand.
– finally, the comment was made that Lee County needs to put more money into maintenance for its schools to prevent the kind of disrepair Lee County High School is seeing now. Although that might be true, and maybe Lee County High School is complicit in its own structural demise, the comment struck me as contradictory: on one hand the schools are spending too much money, but on the other, they need to spend more…
I went to the meeting open-minded but left with a stronger belief in the need to pass the sales tax. We’ll know in a few days how Lee County voters feel…