Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sales Tax Post Mortem

Sales Tax Post Mortem

In the midst of recession, right after income tax season, and in the wake of controversial city council actions (buh-bye Mike Lombardo), the most anti-sales tax city in the state recognized the flood relief need and battled to a de facto tie: a six vote win in Iowa City and a seven vote loss in Coralville.

Expect those results to hold. The chance that outstanding absentee ballots will flip things is slim in Iowa City and only theoretical in Coralville and Shueyville. Only three came in on Wednesday (all Iowa City), and those numbers diminish day by day.

Almost all of the unreturned ballots were sent out under the The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act ("UOCAVA" in election speak.) This law requires that overseas and military voters who request ballots with a Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) are automatically sent ballots for all elections through the next two general elections.

Put more simply: expatriates in Germany and soldiers in Afghanistan who requested ballots for the presidential election got their mail one day and found a ballot for a local election they'd never heard of. A few of those came back, but most didn't and won't.

Recounts, if any, are also unlikely to change the results. Last year's conservation bond recount shifted a net six votes in an electorate roughly six times the size of yesterday's. In the last Iowa City election this close, the 1999 city council race, an administrative re-feed (not a formal recount) changed the margin from three to two in a similar-sized electorate. (Trivia: this is the closest Coralville election of any type in at least the last 30 years.)

Direct comparisons to the 1999 sales tax vote are hard because the absentees were counted differently: six cities lumped together ten years ago, broken out by city yesterday. The best we can do is use the 1999 polling place numbers. Despite coming just short, Coralville swung even more dramatically to the Yes side than Iowa City did, from 86 percent No to seven votes short. Iowa City shifted from 31 percent Yes to 50.

It was the flood survivors themselves who put the tax over the top in Iowa City, with a three to one win in hardest hit precinct 4 (Manville Heights, City Park and the Peninsula). Lefty precincts 18 and 21 and Oaknoll-dominated precinct 1 (Save Roosevelt School) also topped 60 percent. The strongest numerically significant opposition was in the usual working class Tory southeast side belt of 12, 14 and 15, never friendly to spending issues. (Student precincts had high No percentages but miniscule totals.)

The specifics of the projects, and the lefty argument against tax regressivity that the opponents cynically picked up, likely swayed more votes than the blunt axe Taxes Suck argument. In fact, in the one place where tax cuts were specifically on the table, the rural area, the tax lost badly.

The rural county is clearly in a different place than the cities; the tax cut argument lacked credibility because everyone knows a jail is in the works. If that's ever going to happen, Iowa City and the University need to take some responsibility, both financially and with changes to their War On Young People law enforcement policies.

The Democratic Central Committee, under weak new chair Dennis Roseman, chose to be irrelevant in this election. But the legislative wing of the party, and individual Democratic activists from the prior Brian Flaherty administration, were key players. The traditional left, regressivity-based opposition to sales taxes emerged late, was not united, and was not part of the organized Ax The Tax campaign.

In the 1999 sales tax election, when conservatives joined the left in the organized opposition, the defeat was overwhelming. But in 2009, the No Regressive Taxes and the Taxed Enough Already arguments were so disconnected that the Press-Citizen ran two separate No guest opinions last Saturday: Deb Thornton from the right and Jeff Cox from the left. The Yes piece was a united and co-signed message from Yes For All co-chairs Sue Dvorsky and Steve McGuire.

I happened to travel by Cox's home over the weekend; he lives on a busy street and usually advertises his thoughts with a yard sign. But the front yard was bare. Either the No message was so clearly Tea Party that he didn't like the signs, or the No outreach didn't pull in progressive opponents.

Could a campaign where Thornton and Thayer and Cox and Carsner were on the same team, with a cohesive voice, have flipped seven votes? And how many people voted Yes just to spite `em?

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