Cheaters and cheapskates: Wake voters strike back, and light rail dies again. | Wake County | Indy Week
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Cheaters and cheapskates: Wake voters strike back, and light rail dies again. 

So this was as predictable as sunrise: The Raleigh Wake Citizens Association and 14 Wake voters filed a federal lawsuit last week challenging the Wake County Commission redistricting bill rammed through the Legislature a few weeks ago by Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake and Franklin, who looks like the kid you stuffed into a locker in middle school.

Proponents (all of whom happen to be Republicans, IMAGINE THAT) said this bill—which changes the county commission's current at-large races to seven single-member districts and two super-districts starting next year—was needed to ensure that rural and suburban areas were better represented, and of course had nothing to do with Democrats recapturing Wake County government last fall, don't be silly.

Senate Bill 181 passed over the objections of Democrats, county commissioners, Gov. McCrory (who, because it was a local bill, didn't have a veto), and BASIC HUMAN DECENCY. The ostensible logic was that power was too concentrated in Raleigh, at the expense of surrounding rural areas.

"At-large districts are bad policy," REP. PAUL STAM, R-Wake, said during the debate. (Stam does not talk to this esteemed publication because he does not appreciate the SEXXXYTIME CHAT-LINE ADS in the back, or maybe he appreciates them a little too much and this is a source of shame, who knows.) And you know what? He has a point—or at least a legitimate argument. At-large districts tend to protect majorities and can make it harder for racial and ideological minorities to be properly represented.

If that's all the bill did—establish equitable single-member districts—the plaintiffs would not have a case, says ANITA EARLS, an attorney with the Southern Coalition For Social Justice, who filed the complaint. But the problem is how those districts were drawn. In essence, the complaint alleges, the Legislature's new districts—the same districts that Barefoot and the Legislature imposed on the Wake County School Board in 2013, after the Democrats retook that body (weird coincidence, man)—give the vote of WHITE DUDES FROM APEX more weight than the vote of AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN RALEIGH, and that's all kinds of unconstitutional.

The complaint attacks the law on two fronts: First, because the districts have dramatically uneven populations (Super-District A, for example, has 9.8 percent more people than Super-District B), the lawsuit alleges that it violates the ONE-PERSON, ONE-VOTE PRINCIPLE of the Voting Rights Act. Second, the bill crams basically every available black person into a gerrymandered majority-minority District 4, which will make the surrounding districts WHITER AND MORE REPUBLICAN.

"If they had drawn districts that were created of equal size and had NOT PACKED BLACK VOTERS, we would not have a lawsuit," Earls says. " It is not legitimate for them to privilege one party over another. You don't change the system to try to SKEW IT IN YOUR FAVOR."

The plaintiffs point out that right now the county commission has two blacks elected in countywide elections, so it's not like that was a problem that needed fixing. And they also note that, during the debate over SB 181, REP. ROSA GILL, D-WAKE, introduced an amendment to create more even, balanced single-member districts. Republicans shot her down cold, twice.

"This redistricting is, as RONALD REAGAN WOULD SAY, antidemocratic and anti-American," says plaintiff and Dem-aligned political consultant PERRY WOODS. "This redistricting is nothing but a partisan power grab."

As bald-faced and ostentatious as BAREFOOT'S MACHIAVELLIAN MOTIVATIONS were, however, this lawsuit will still be a tough slog. After all, a U.S. District Court dismissed a previous lawsuit by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice challenging the school board districts on the VERY SAME GROUNDS, though that ruling is being appealed.

"It's gonna be uphill all the way," Earls admits.

Rail is dead. Long live rail (maybe)

The headline from last Wednesday's possibly final meeting of the Wake County Transit Advisory Committee was that LIGHT RAIL WILL STAY DEAD, rejected because it was way too expensive: $2.3 billion for infrastructure, plus $22 million a year on operations. Committee members instead pressed on with two cheaper plans for regional rail (either $1.4 billion or $2.2 billion upfront), which we're apparently going to call "RAIL RAPID TRANSIT" because that's sexier, and two more for a Bus Rapid Transit system ($500 million upfront). In the end, the County Commission will decide which of these to put to voters next year in a referendum.

These options were quite clearly the county's consultants favorites. Light rail, they said, would be very difficult to sell. That, in fact, was the overarching theme: Even voters in the PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF AUSTIN just last year rejected a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion light-rail referendum, the consultants pointed out. Rapid Rail Transit can cover much the same territory—from the RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK to downtown and then out Atlantic Avenue to the belt line. (Because the rail line dead ends at RTP, there was talk that DURHAM COUNTY might pony up to connect it to its light rail system, so Durham taxpayers have that to look forward to.) Tack on some less-frequent commuter rail (that's the $2.2 billion option) and you've got a system that runs northeast to the county line and southeast into the sticks.

Devil's in the details, of course—and there are lots of details—but the pitch was compelling. The question, however, is how much dough wake voters are willing to cough up. Sure, they elected a more progressive county commission last fall, but how far are they willing to go?

Consider this: The night before the transit meeting, SUPERINTENDENT JIM MERRILL laid out his request for $48 million in additional funding, money the schools—battered as they've been by the Legislature's budget cuts; THANKS, GUYS—need every bit as much as Wake needs something approaching respectable mass transit. WAKE COUNTY COMMISSION CHAIR JAMES WEST promptly shit all over that ask. Too much money, he said.

If the county is reluctant to raise its very-low property tax rate to fund schools—though that is probably inevitable—you have to wonder how ambitious commissioners will be with a transit plan that requires voters to approve a SALES-TAX HIKE. Maybe, in the end, a pimped-out bus system won't look so bad after all.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Cheaters and cheapskates"

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