Election shows counties they have work to do before new funding OK’d

Last Tuesday’s vote was as illuminating as any recent elections, and it should send a few good signals to those already looking ahead to 2008.


Anti-tax groups win big

To begin with, paying $40 to fill up with gas and hearing incessant bad news about the economy certainly has the anti-tax fervor up. All 16 counties in North Carolina that wanted to use the real estate transfer tax to raise more local revenue won’t get the opportunity. The proposal, which would have raised the real estate transfer levy from .2 percent to .6, was beaten badly everywhere. In Macon County the margin was 5,178 against and only 1,681 for. In Swain, the margin was similar — 1,458 against and 391 for.

It’s interesting to note that Swain is an overwhelmingly Democratic county while Macon is overwhelmingly Republican. This was not a partisan issue at the voter level, though the lobbying against the measure came mostly from what are considered conservative organizations — Realtor groups, construction groups, Republican leaders in the General Assembly, and right-leaning think tanks like the John Locke Institute.

The vote throughout the state was overwhelming against all tax proposals. A total of 29 counties tried to pass either the land transfer tax or the local option sales tax. Only Catawba, Martin, Pitt, Sampson and Surry counties succeeded, and voters there OK’d the sales tax hike.

It’s hard to separate local and state politics from disillusionment with the federal government. Perhaps the negative tone of the presidential campaign, the unending ineptitude emanating from the White House, and the leadership vacuum created by Gov. Mike Easley in Raleigh has people skeptical of giving government resources it thinks will just be squandered.


Educating the citizenry

It took lobbyists for the state’s counties a couple of decades to convince the legislature to give them a way to increase revenues in some ways other than by raising property taxes. A second message from Nov. 6 is that it’s going to take an equal amount of work to convince voters that those new kinds of taxes are needed.

The case shouldn’t be that hard to make, but supporters will need to get their talking points down pat. The state’s population was 8 million in 2000 and is expected to rise to 12 million by 2030, according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a 50 percent increase in just 30 years. North Carolina is the third leading state in the country in terms of in-migration, which means people are moving here in big numbers. These new residents will need new schools, bigger jails, repairs and sometimes additions to water and sewer systems, more police protection, and access to all the public services we take for granted.

The idea behind the real estate transfer tax is that it mostly affects these newcomers, though long-time residents who move also have to pay it. The sales tax was seen as justifiable because it affects those who spend more, which means the affluent pay a larger portion of most sales taxes.

Anyone who has worked at the grassroots level knows how to build support for a fund-raising campaign. Get the leaders of local organizations like civic clubs, chambers of commerce, school-affiliated groups like PTOs and other business associations to start talking about the needs. Town boards can adopt resolutions in support of county-led efforts.

County commissioners, for their part, need to do more than just put these measures on the ballots. They know better than anyone their own county’s financial situation. They must express their support and lay out the reasons they need more money.

Last Tuesday made one point very clear — counties won’t just be able to put these measures on the ballot and expect the electorate to say yes. It just isn’t going to happen.

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