Prospects for the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit idea were batted around this week at a post-election gathering hosted by WakeUP Wake County. Between what I knew beforehand and some things people said in the course of discussion, I believe the situation is this: Two of the four Republican county commissioners-elect (Tony Gurley, Joe Bryan) have told transit supporters that they will allow a countywide referendum on the 1/2-cent tax plan next fall — assuming that polling shows it has a chance to pass. The other two (Paul Coble, Phil Matthews) are against spending for public transit. Thus, it may be up to the three remaining Democratic commissioners (Stan Norwalk, Betty Lou Ward, James West) whether the sales-tax question gets to the ballot or not.
If so, what should the Democrats do?
And what should WakeUP, for whom transit is in their DNA, do?
In my opinion — and since I was the invited speaker everyone was forced to listen to it — the transit tax should not be put to a vote in 2011. If it is, it will be defeated and the transit cause set back another, well, bunch of years. Yeah, I know, the polls might show something different. But you can't poll in advance how a referendum question will fare with the voters after they've listened to the pros and cons about it. And believe me, all they're going to hear is cons.
At best, 2011 will be a year for building (really, rebuilding — after years of neglect) the case for transit to a jaded, economically fearful public. Maybe 2012 will be better. Maybe.
Here's the point: 2011 will be dominated, through June 30 at a minimum and perhaps long into the fall, by debates about the pending, drastic and disastrous cuts to K-12 education coming out of the General Assembly.
Consider: Both houses about to be dominated by Republicans; the Republicans are promising to balance the budget without any tax hikes notwithstanding the $3 billion-plus budget gap; inevitably, school aid will be cut and teachers' jobs will be eliminated — and when it all happens, the question in Wake County will be whether and to what extent the Wake Commissioners should supply the missing funds.
The missing funds for schools, that is.
Not for transit.
And this is to say nothing about the ongoing school assignment fight, which has split the county and put most of Raleigh at war politically with most of the rest of Wake County. Not an atmosphere in which countywide consensus on anything could be readily reached.
The Republican majority on the Wake Commissioners board will be under tremendous pressure to offset at least some of the state budget cuts (also, the lost federal stimulus funds) by raising the property tax rate. I don't know if they will or not. All four ran pledging no tax increases. They even had a little jingle: "Gurley, Coble, Bryan and Matthews/They're the four who won'r raise taxes" ... or some such. How Gurley and Bryan square that with their private assurances that they'll support the transit tax, I don't know. Maybe they plan to just put the sales-tax question to voters and stand back, not really supporting it but LETTING THE VOTERS HAVE THEIR SAY.
Which will allow them to say NO WAY.
For transit supporters, any postponement is a bitter pill. I know. I am one — have been one for 20 years. Transit should've been funded in the '90s, the '00s, and it should be funded today. That's a different question, though, than whether Wake voters should be asked next year to approve a tax increase for transit while the public schools are in crisis.
Transit needs a yes vote, not a resounding rejection. But a resounding rejection is what's in store if that question goes on the ballot.
And by the way, when I say you can't poll in advance the impact of a negative campaign, I mean a negative campaign by every Republican candidate running in '11 for the Wake school board, for Raleigh City Council, and for the Cary Town Council in 2011. Plus the sure-to-be-nasty "issues" campaign that would come from millionaire Art Pope and his various organizations (John Locke, J. W. Pope Civitas Institute, etc.), all of which are — like Pope, who pays their salaries — anti-transit.
My opinion was not well-received by those in WakeUP who've been pushing to get transit back on the local agenda since 2006, when the Bush Administration derailed it. They've been promised, 2011 would be their year. But 2011 will be the year of school budget cuts, nothing else.
If the sales tax for transit goes on the Wake ballot next year, courtesy of the Republicans on the Wake Commission, it will be for the sole purpose of sending it down to defeat — along with any Democratic candidates foolish enough to support it.