The big stakes in local debates

The big stakes in local debates

- in Fitzsimon File

When North Carolina voters head to the polls in two weeks, in almost a fourth of the counties they will be deciding more than the nominees of their political party for Council of State offices and all 170 seats in the General Assembly.

Voters in 22 counties will decide if the local sales tax will increase by one fourth of a percent while a .4 percent increase in the real estate transfer tax is on the ballot in three other counties. Three more counties will vote on local option tax hikes in November.

None of the tax increases are a sure thing. The state associations of realtors and homebuilders are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars of Raleigh money into counties to fight the transfer tax, hoping for a repeat of last November, when voters in 16 counties rejected the small increase in the tax after a massive high-dollar propaganda effort against it from the same big money crowd in Raleigh.

Sixteen counties had the sales tax on the ballot last November and voters in five of them passed it. 

State lawmakers decided last session to allow counties to raise either local tax if the voters approved in a referendum. County officials who rush the taxes on the ballot in November were almost guaranteeing they would fail, with no time to mount a campaign to pass them, leaving the absurd rhetoric of the realtors virtually unchallenged.

The realtors are it again, hammering home their message about the "home tax" being a tax on the American dream, refusing to admit that the dream also includes good schools and other local infrastructure that improves the quality life.

The Realtors continue to get away with their slick slogans without having to explain why it is ok for them to take six percent from people who sell a house, 15 times as much as the transfer tax proposed to build schools.

This elections brings even more offensive tactics. The President of the Hendersonville Board of Realtors led the forces that defeated a local transfer tax in his county in November, but now is in favor of the sales tax increase on the ballot in two weeks, saying he supports education.

During the debate in the General Assembly about giving local governments the option to consider tax increases, Realtors Association Vice President Tim Kent said that lawmakers had enough money to spend without raising taxes. Apparently that only bothers realtors when t's a tax that affect their profits. They seem happy to support raising the regressive sales tax that disproportionately paid by the poor.

Virtually every news story about the votes includes claims from the John Locke Foundation that each county has enough money without raising taxes.  As the group did before the November elections, the group has issued a series of cook-cutter reports that purport to analyze the counties budgets.

At least this time some county officials are responding, pointing out the flaws in the analyses, including the view that counties need far less savings, a particularly odd position from a think thank that claims to be for fiscal responsibility.

One of the Lockers favorite legislators, House Minority Leader Paul Stam is weighing in too, trying to influence the vote in Ashe County with an op-ed in the local paper against the transfer tax that invokes the British Parliament and claims that the income made by people who build houses is taxed so a transfer tax is not needed.

Stam is a perennial signer of the ridiculous no new tax pledge and he and the Locke folks are not just against the transfer tax or the sales tax, they are against any increase in revenue for government, regardless of the needs.

There are some bright spots in the debate. The Carrboro Board of Aldermen passed a resolution supporting the Orange County transfer tax and county officials are more organized than they were in November.

But proponents of making the realtors help pay for the growth that brings them their billions in profits have their work cut out for them, and so do county leaders  turning to the sales tax for additional revenue.

The combination of profit-protecting realtors and the anti-tax, stick-your-head-in-the-sand ideologues and legislators is a formidable force, especially when rarely confronted about their misleading rhetoric and flawed analyses.

It is past time for more people to fight this unholy alliance head on.  Not only are schools and the quality of life in several counties at stake, so too is the nature of the state's policy debate that affects our future. Big money and anti-government zealots have had their way too long.