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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Transit tax and "the question of Durham"

Posted by on Wed, Mar 11, 2009 at 3:41 PM

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As expected, the House Transportation Committee approved House Bill 148 this morning, sending it on to the House Finance Committee. This is the legislation that would bring -- after a lot of other hoops are jumped through -- the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit to the Triangle. For progressive tax advocates who hate sales taxes, it's a bitter pill. For transit folk, it's the holy grail.

For an overview of the bill and its chances, see our Indy story this week. What I want to focus on here is "the question of Durham" ... "can Durham be counted on?" ... that came up in the hallway after the committee meeting. Are we headed for a scenario in 2010 or 2011 (the question goes) in which Wake and Orange counties approve a transit tax but Durham doesn't -- leaving a big hole in the middle of our supposed regional transit schema?

When the meeting ended, I asked Rep. Deborah Ross about a provision in HB 148 addressing the possibility that just one of the three Triangle counties has approved the 1/2-cent tax -- but the other counties haven't. In that case, Ross told me, the bill says the tax revenues would be managed by the one county's board of commissioners, but that county could contract with the Triangle Transit Authority (a.k.a., our special transit district) for its services. And if two counties have approved the tax? I asked. Then the TTA would take over and manage the revenues for both.

Got it. In the hallway, I saw David King, general manager of the TTA, and ran the two-county situation by him. Right, he said, TTA would manage the money for the two counties, or all three, but the bill also calls for the "special district" to spend the $$$ in accordance with transit plans adopted by each county. (All you political scientists out there, think about how that'll work. It makes my head hurt to think about it. Each county does what it wants, and each keeps its own revenues from the sales tax "at home," as it were; yet the three also work together through the TTA so their individual schemes add up to a regional system -- OK, that could happen.)

Anyway, the one- and two-county provisions are new to the bill this year, as Ross made clear in her remarks to the committee. Last year's bill allowed the 1/2-cent tax to go into effect in the Triangle only if all three counties approved it -- and approval, in last year's bill and this year's, means the county's board of commissioners has authorized a referendum on the tax, the voters in the county have approved it, and then the county commissioners go ahead and enact it. Three steps. This year's bill, Ross emphasized, allows for "maximum flexibility" if just one or two counties want to go ahead.

Why the change? The "question of Durham" is one big reason, if not the only one.

Until very recently, Wake County's support for a transit tax was the giant question mark out there -- Republican control of the county commissioners, sprawl a specialty, etcetera -- while the liberal bastions of Durham and Orange were thought to be all aboard for transit. However, without Wake -- and the two-thirds of regional revenues Wake would generate from a sales tax, versus one-third from Durham and Orange combined -- it was hard to see how a regional transit system could be fashioned.

Hence, the former three-or-none approach.

But now, as King remarked in passing and as Ross joked about at a Raleigh transit forum last week, the big question isn't Wake so much -- although Wake's not in the bag; the BIG question is Durham. Durham, you see, put a meals tax on the ballot in November ... powerful political groups in Durham blasted it ... and the voters crushed it.

HB 148 and its twin, Senate Bill 151, don't have unanimous support among Wake County's legislative delegation, but a majority of them are in favor -- and this morning, Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar surprised some by adding his "aye" to the bill. (Dollar told me after that he was "willing to see it go the next step" to the Finance Committee, but is undecided how he'll vote if the bill comes to the floor of the House).

But in Durham, only Sen. Floyd McKissock, who backed the meals tax, is a co-sponsor (as is Rep. Winkie Wilkins, whose Person County district includes part of Durham County). Meanwhile, the House trio of Reps. Paul Luebke, Mickey Michaux and Larry Hall are all officially on the fence, i.e., not in favor -- and Luebke, not incidentally, is "senior chair" of the Finance Committee.

Luebke hates the sales tax, hates the way the General Assembly continually loads more of it on the working class (and avoids taxing the rich) whenever money's needed -- nothing new there. What is new is the allergy that seems to have developed among Durham's politicians to any new tax that the voters might be asked to approve following the pummeling of the meals tax last year.

Thus, Ross's joke -- she said she was repeating a crack House Speaker Joe Hackney (D-Orange) made -- that if Durham doesn't get with it, "regional rail" could end up going from Chapel Hill to Raleigh via Chatham County.

In his "State of the City" address in January, Durham Mayor Bill Bell called for the 1/2-cent sales tax and a transit connection from West Durham to East Durham -- thus inviting later-on hookups with Orange (west) and Wake (east). Thus far, though, only McKissock seems to be listening to the mayor.

So imagine, if you will, what happens if the General Assembly approves HB 148 and Gov. Perdue signs it without Luebke's or Hall's or Michaux's support. If Durham's commissioners put the question to the voters -- 1/2-cent sales tax everyone? -- will they go to bat for it? Or rip it as more regressive than the meals tax.

Luebke's open, I'm told, to some sort of compromise that might involve a 1/4-cent sales tax and an equal property-tax measure of some kind that, because it would nick business as well as consumers, would make the overall package more progressive.

Next stop: His committee.

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