Mobile residents should have been fuming two days ago when the City Council reversed its earlier promises and overrode Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s veto of an extension of the city’s “extra penny” sales tax through Fiscal Year 2018. (Relying on those earlier promises, I had led this site with a celebratory and forward looking piece called “Victory!!! (?) (Sales tax to be reversed!)” — note the question mark in the headline, based on past experience of Mobile Council members failing to follow through on their promises.)
We should continue to fume about the vote that seemed to back-stab our citizens — but we also should find a path forward to make the Council comfortable with an alternative to the hugely destructive policy they have inflicted on Mobile.
First, we’ll recap what happened, and then we’ll look forward — with an announcement a the end (at the risk, in journalist-talk, of burying the lead).
As I described last week in the Mobile Press-Register, the vote on the sales tax came almost completely by surprise, against statements reported in the online newspaper just that morning, and against many prior pledges by various members of the Council. And, if you follow that link above, you’ll see my summation of the most important of the arguments against the extra penny, which harms the working poor and small businesses and economic development and quality of life.
Thanks to outraged response from the citizenry, it took less than three days for the Council to say it would reverse itself. And make no mistake: That new promise to repeal its own 60-hour-old work was quite explicit. As reported by al.com, Councilman Fred Richardson early last Friday morning wrote a letter announcing this [missing words supplied by me]: “I now recommend that[we] support the Mayor by reversing our action and let the penny sunset as the Mayor requested in his budget, September 30, 2015…. By copy of this email I request council attorney, Jim Rossler, to draft the appropriate legislation for council to reverse its action in extending the penny past September 30, 2015, and make said date the sunset date. I’m requesting my colleagues to please notify Jim Rossler of your sponsorship of said resolution.”
Council President Gina Gregory announced her support for Richardson’s suggestion. Via seniority, they are the two most powerful members of the Council. It beggars belief that, with their reversal, they couldn’t round up the two more votes needed (along with Bess Rich, already against the tax) to repeal the tax extension — if they really tried, along with the mayor. Instead, not only did no such resolution get drafted or introduced (which would have required five votes, of seven on the Council, to pass), but Richardson himself did not even vote in favor of his own suggestion when Mayor Stimpson vetoed the tax extension. By the rules of city government, it would have taken only three, not five, of the seven Council members in order to uphold the veto and thus kill the three-year extension. But Richardson, despite his Friday letter, voted to keep the tax extension, while Gregory clearly did not lift a finger to convince any other Council members to join her and Rich in voting with the mayor. The COuncil overrode the veto and kept the tax extension.
Therefore, we are now stuck with the tax for four more years (three years and two months longer than existed before this week), unless and until five members of the Council will agree to repeal the tax extension in a future vote, perhaps replacing the revenue with a mix of other taxes or fees along with budgetary savings achieved in conjunction with the mayor’s office.
The scorecard thus reads at least four major public pledges broken, with regard to this penny of tax: 1) That the tax applied in 2010 would absolutely positively be only temporary, to die in 2012; 2) that when extended, despite that earlier pledge, through July 15, 2105, that would absolutely positively be temporary, and that the Council would not, on its own, extend it again; 3) that if they did want to extend the tax yet again, that the proposal would be put before the public via an open referendum; and 4) that having broken all of those pledges but borne the brunt of public anger in the three days after the last pledge-breaking, they would repeal their own action. But with the smoke having cleared, the tax is set to continue, this time longer than ever.
But here’s the silver lining: Council President Gregory has appointed Bess Rich, a longtime advocate of low taxes, to head a committee/commission on tax and fiscal reform. The makeup of the committee/commission is still up in the air, as are its parameters, but suffice it to say that it provides a great opportunity to recommend a more pro-growth, pro-fairness system taxation that still brings in a significant and appropriate portion of the revenue that is supposed to be secured through the extra penny — but, this time, in lieu of that penny, or in lieu of at least part of that penny. The commission, if it is smart, also will outline a plan to get its recommendations into law, meaning through a gauntlet that includes state legislative approval to put it on the ballot and also includes securing support in a popular vote for the plan.
This committee could reassure the members of the Council who are worried about the alleged $32 million from the extra penny that we as a city will find the resources needed for capital repairs, improvements, etc. If the right people are involved, it could find ways to raise the money that place a demonstrably smaller burden on the working poor who make up a larger share of the populations of the districts of Councilmen Richardson, C.J. Small and Levon Manzie. And it could reassure property owners that Mobile will keep property taxes and other taxes lower than those almost anywhere else in the country giving us great competitive advantage. Finally, it could reassure the citizens, with the help of a mayor dedicated to fiscal responsibility, that the money will not be wasted.
Frankly, organizations such as The Chamber and 100 Black Men of Mobile and various civic organizations should enthusiastically get behind this effort.
Meanwhile, I personally will do two things. I will forward, to any and all with an interest, a “Hillyer Plan” to serve as one suggestion for how to move forward — perhaps an imperfect suggestion, but nonetheless a comprehensive one that I hope people also will find constructive. Second, I am exploring the possibility of forming an outside citizen’s group or coalition in support of the general proposition that the penny must be repealed and the tax system improved. I’ll have more to say on that within about a week.
I’ve been pretty rough on the Council and on several individual members thereof. I’ve explained the genesis of those writings and statements, meaning the combination of what certainly seemed like not one but two sudden, insufficiently discussed actions (in successive weeks) with what is both bad economics and the bad politics of broken pledges. Going forward, though, we’re all interested in improving our city. I hope the Council can get beyond some of the harsh words (including from me) and accept that, from here on, I and anybody who joins my effort will let bygones be bygones for any public official who works in a cooperative spirit to find workable solutions to Mobile’s tax and fiscal deficiencies.
Let’s make this work.