Monday, December 22, 2014

Sales Tax By The Numbers

As noted last week by the Daily Iowan and no one else in the news media, The Iowa City Council and Johnson County Supervisors sat down for their first joint meeting in forever the other week, and a sales tax do-over was on the top of the city's agenda.

The sales tax lost in the November 4 election, with 53.8% No to 46.2% yes.  It was an odd afterthought in the midst of the Open Seat Senate Race year, made stranger by the fact that there was no actual Yes campaign.

Well, I guess, there was a Yes committee, named YES!, chaired by council member Susan Mims.  They raised $6,350 and spent $3,750, but there was never a broad campaign mailing, and never a yard sign spotted. The only public evidence that the issue was even on the ballot were a handful of letters to the editor.

Anyway, there's $2,594 in the bank for the next campaign, which will be... when?

Unlike the courthouse issue (which also had no visible campaign), there's no mandatory six month waiting period.  The sales tax could be back on the ballot as soon as March 3, the first of four dates set aside for city/county ballot issues in 2015.

I don't expect the city to get it together that fast, so the other options in 2015 are May 5, August 4, or in combination with the November 3 city election - that last, a risk the council incumbents are unlikely to want to take.

Whichever date they pick, the sales tax will face a very different electorate than it saw in November.

Any down-ballot issue or candidate has a huge challenge in a general election, trying to break through the noise of the top of the ticket races.  But local ballot committees have a different challenge.  Any smart campaign targets likely voters.  In a small local election, that's an easy group to define.  But in a general election, targeting likely voters means targeting EVERYONE, an intense and expensive proposition which may explain why the courthouse and sales tax committees didn't do the mailers.

How different IS the electorate in a local special election?  More specifically, and this is a question I get asked, did student votes hurt the sales tax?

Before I answer that, let's get the numbers in front of us for what DID happen in November.  First, Iowa City proper.  Remember, this is a five city vote.  The 2009 sales tax election was a one time only thing, each city for itself.  And under those rules, Iowa City would have passed it.

  Yes No
Student areas (precincts 3 5 11 19 20) 1044 43.9% 1335 56.1%
Southeast (10 12 14 15) 1428 43.3% 1869 56.7%
Near East side (16 17 18) 2140 53.4% 1869 46.6%
Far East side (1 6 23 24) 3026 52.1% 2781 47.9%
Northside/Manville (4 21 22) 1516 56.0% 1190 44.0%
West Side (2 7 8 9 13) 2444 50.4% 2401 49.6%
Total 11598 50.3% 11445 49.7%

Hmm.  Six roughly equal, cohesive, demographic chunks of town... six council districts each electing their own member?  And an elected mayor?  The numbers don't QUITE match up, so you'd have to tweak the lines, but something along this model would be an interesting way to set up the city council.  Would be nice to get a voting student on the council from that downtown district...

But that was a tangent.  This is a post about the sales tax.  Note support in home-ownery areas and opposition on the lower income southeast side.  And yes, the students were opposed...

  Yes No
Coralville 2460 37.5% 4102 62.5%
North Liberty 2156 39.1% 3361 60.9%
Tiffin 298 36.4% 520 63.6%
CV/NL/TF Total 4914 38.1% 7983 61.9%
University Heights 341 63.7% 194 36.3%
Grand Total 16853 46.2% 19622 53.8%

...but not as much as the three outlying cities were.  Coralville, North Liberty and Tiffin were all more than 60% No.  Coralville leaders cited frustration with the formula for distributing funds, based on old data.  And the outlying cities simply aren't as desperate for the revenue as Iowa City is, because Iowa City was hit harder than anyplace else in the state by property tax "reforms" that cut deeply into the property taxes the city can collect on rental property.

University Heights is an outlier; with only one or two tax collecting businesses, the sales tax was and is a good deal for them, and they voted more heavily Yes than any other precinct.  Put it all together it's a 54-46 loss.

But back to that initial question: how did the turnout model change the outcome?

Let's apply the model of a lower turnout special election.  Let's assume that only the voters who vote in a local special election vote, and those voters cast the same Yes or No votes they did in November.

The most recent county wide local special election was Justice Center 2, in May 2013.  That's especially good because it's a money question AND because I expect the sales tax do-over to land on that May 5 date because I think Iowa City is panicking about their Fiscal 2016 budget and wants the money on or before July 1.

I adjusted turnout a little bit to account for population growth - Coralville growing faster than Iowa City, North Liberty growing faster than Coralville, and Tiffin growing faster than North Liberty.

Disclaimer: in the table below I lump absentees in with their precincts. In November, because it was a general election, we got absentee votes broken out by precinct. In a special, all absentees will be lumped together.

  Yes No
Student areas (precincts 3 5 11 19 20) 220 46.4% 253 53.6%
Southeast (10 12 14 15) 378 43.5% 492 56.5%
Near East side (16 17 18) 816 53.1% 721 46.9%
Far East side (1 6 23 24) 1137 51.8% 1058 48.2%
Northside/Manville (4 21 22) 500 56.1% 391 43.9%
West Side (2 7 8 9 13) 722 52.1% 665 47.9%
Iowa City Total 3774 51.3% 3580 48.7%
Coralville 638 37.7% 1055 62.3%
North Liberty 322 39.3% 498 60.7%
Tiffin 69 36.4% 120 63.6%
CV/NL/TF Total 1029 38.1% 1674 61.9%
U Heights 119 63.7% 68 36.3%
Contiguous Cities Total 4922 48.0% 5322 52.0%

Not enough changes to get the sales tax over the finish line. The higher turnout in the general election cost the sales tax a couple points in November, but it wasn't close enough that those couple points made the difference.

(Just for fun: In the special election turnout model, the unincorporated vote is 53.5% No, 46.5% Yes, virtually unchanged from November.  And in the two small cities that voted No in November, Oxford and Shueyville, I projected ONE VOTE No wins in a special.)

Let's assume Coralville, North Liberty and Tiffin stay at the same 60%+ No levels.  To overcome that, Iowa City needs to get about 55% Yes.

So what changes?  An actual campaign that contacts voters, for one thing.  But the language starts over again.  Let's hypothetically amend it like this:
A local sales and services tax shall be imposed in the cities of Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Tiffin, University Heights at the rate of one percent (1%) to be effective from July 1, 2015 until June 30, 2025.
Revenues from the sales and services tax are to be allocated as follows:

50%     for maintenance, repair, construction and reconstruction of public streets, trails and associated infrastructure.

40%     for property tax relief.

10% 100%    for programs and initiatives that increase affordable housing, with no less than 75% of said 10% to be allocated for programs and initiatives that increase affordable housing for households at or below 80% of area median income as defined annually in accordance with federal law.
I like that amendment.  There was more than a little lefty grumbling about seeing "property tax relief" on the ballot; wasn't it Terry Branstad's property tax "relief" plan that got the city in this jam in the first place?

But my gut feeling is that my amendment above wouldn't GAIN votes for the sales tax, it would just move them around.  Votes gained in precinct 12 (Bon Aire) would be lost in precinct 24 (Windsor Ridge).

So that's just an exercise in pointing out that the language matters.

I'm kind of an agnostic here.  I literally made my mind up in the booth, and I don't feel sure enough about it to say which way I went.  I know that the city is screwed without the revenue, and I also know that any kind of actual progressive tax reform is off the table in Iowa for at least the next few years.

But the other thing that affects my vote?  The direction of city government.

As anyone who reads this blog in odd numbered years knows, I've long been frustrated by the direction of Iowa City government, especially its open contempt for the student population that, to state the obvious, drives the economy of this city. 

Before I think about the sales tax again,  I want to see what happens with the charter review commission.  There's a public input meeting January 7.  I probably won't go because I said my piece here already.  It's not an accident that I went on that tangent about an all-student council district.  And getting rid of that blatantly anti-student "qualified elector" thing is the least they can do.

And I want to know who gets my penny, which is why I'd really like to see the sales tax on the same ballot as the council.  Who's spending the penny: a Terry Dickens-Susan Mims council, or a Jim Throgmorton-Kingsley Botchway council?

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