by Bob Geary
[Update, 6/19: Here are a few paragraphs from a story I wrote today for this week's Indy —
First and foremost, Wake County will not vote in November on a ½-cent sales tax increase for transit, the only funding mechanism provided for local governments by the General Assembly. Wake County’s Republican-led Board of Commissioners continues to block the vote. Orange County voters will get to decide the question this fall. Durham voters approved the ½-cent tax last year; the county is waiting for one of its two Triangle partners to join it.
But the Wake board not only won’t allow the public to vote, it has refused to even listen to the transit plan put together—at its direction—by County Manager David Cooke and David King, general manager of the Triangle Transit Authority, working with Wake’s 12 municipal governments.
“Nah,” was Wake Commissioners Chair Paul Coble’s dismissive response when a Democratic member, Erv Portman, asked two weeks ago that the Cooke-King plan, on the shelf all year, be presented to the board in a work session this month.
On Monday, Portman made an impassioned argument in favor of at least discussing the plan in coming weeks—and scheduling a public hearing—while there’s still time to consider whether to place the sales-tax increase on the ballot this fall. Portman’s two fellow Democrats, Betty Lou Ward and James West, agreed, saying Wake’s voters have a right to decide on the plan—and the tax.
They were outvoted by the four Republican members, however. None of the Republicans said anything until Coble, after the 4-3 vote, delivered a one-word epitaph: “Fails.”
Coble’s word was the last, dispiriting one in a meeting that began five hours earlier and was dominated by dozens of citizens who spoke during the public comment period, pleading with or demanding that the commissioners allow the 1/2-cent tax to go to referendum.
By the time the commissioners voted, after first considering a landfill permit and other routine business, most of the citizens were gone.
“The Wake transit plan has been on the table since last November,” the Capital Area Friends of Transit, a citizens group, complained in a statement the next day, “yet the board majority has blatantly stalled it, refusing to put this to a vote or referendum of the people.”
The original post is below —
Transit advocates are planning to be at the Wake County Board of Commissioners meeting today (2 p.m., Wake Courthouse) asking them to put the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit on the November ballot. (A statement from Capital Area Friends of Transit is appended below.) Is there any chance that will happen?
But that's not the right question just yet. The better question — because it's the only one with a chance of getting a positive response — is whether the Commissioners will listen to and actually consider the Wake plan developed by the Triangle Transit Authority and their own county manager, David Cooke.
If Cooke is allowed to present the plan in the next several weeks, it could start a process by which one or more of the four Republican commissioners begins to think about the benefits of transit, not just the costs.
No guarantee of that, of course; and in fact, the more likely outcome is that Cooke presents (or doesn't) and the Republican opposition remains unchanged.
But it seems to me a certainty that, if pushed to say, today, if they'll allow the 1/2-cent tax to go to referendum in 2012, the Republicans' answer will be no. A flat, final no.
Commissioners Chair Paul Coble is already dug in on the question. If he stays dug in, it forces Tony Gurley, Joe Bryan and Phil Matthews to either back him up or go against him — and they won't go against him.
On the other hand, it would be reasonable for Coble to move to a position of "let the voters decide ... let's get it over with." In fact, I can imagine Coble wanting to do just that, if the advocates back off just a bit and ask, not for a referendum, but simply a report, with a public hearing and process of genuine consideration to follow about whether to go to referendum this year.
Two reasons why I think the Coble-GOP majority might want to allow a vote this year:
1) 2012 is the year when a transit referendum in Wake is least likely to amp up progressive voter turnout and threaten Republican candidates running on the same ballot. If the vote is pushed back to 2013, it would presumably be held in October, coincidental with the traditionally low-turnout Raleigh and Cary elections and school board elections in districts where the Republicans will expect to win — but not if there's an increased turnout of Democrats supporting transit.
Then in 2014, the four Republican commissioners themselves are up for re-election.
2012, on the other hand, promises to be a big turnout year for Democrats regardless of a transit referendum because it's a presidential election year and the Obama campaign is going all-out in Wake County. The three Wake Commissioners seats on the ballot are already held by Democrats, so the Republicans will retain control when they lose them, as they will.
The Republicans won't be worse off, in other words. Except if they hate transit that much.
2) After the July 17 runoff elections, Tony Gurley may well be the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. Until the runoff, the chances Gurley will vote to put a transit tax on the ballot — emphasis on the word tax — are zero. It just can't happen while he's running in a statewide Republican primary. But after the runoff, if he wins, Gurley will surely want to appeal to independent voters. And what better way than to take the very reasonable position that transit has its virtues and anyway, the General Assembly said the voters should decide on the 1/2-cent, so by golly, independent-thinking Tony Gurley is going to let them!
A lovely theory, I know, especially regarding Gurley. "It's probably wishful thinking" to believe he'd ever vote for a November referendum, he told me on Friday. Transit's important, he added, but other priorities rank higher for him, and we're in a recession.
Still, Gurley said, if the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce asked him to back a referendum because the transit plan would be good for business in Wake County, "I would think about it. It doesn't cost me anything to think about it."
As for the Chamber, CEO Harvey Schmitt has been telling transit advocates — as he did in an email one shared with me — that his organization is pro-transit (though it has no formal position on the David Cooke/TTA plan). But, as Schmitt also wrote:
"... it is our considered opinion that the Board of Commission majority will not be swayed by pressure to take action at this point in time and indeed shows of force will be responded to by reactions that will make it harder to succeed."
In other words, Gurley can — and does — point to "lukewarm" support for a November referendum from the Chamber ... and the Chamber says its lukewarm is because Gurley, Coble & Co. won't be swayed whatever they do.
Remember, if a referendum is held, it falls mainly to the Chamber to raise the money for a pro-transit campaign, which will be much harder to do if the Republican Party is united in opposition. Ideally, a referendum would have bipartisan support. Failing that, it would have enough support that the other side doesn't fight it.
I talked with Schmitt late Friday afternoon. He wants to "de-escalate" the debate, he said. "My hope is that we can get through this in a way that we can continue the conversation [about transit]. We should have that conversation."
That'd be my hope as well. I know from experience that very few people are well-informed about what's in the transit plan and what they'd be getting for their 1/2-cent. For all the focus on light-rail routes, the truth is the plan is mostly buses. Commuter buses and commuter trains to carry people into and out of Raleigh-Cary-RTP for work. It shouldn't really be controversial.
Call me naive, but it seems like if Cooke made his presentation in the next three weeks, and a public hearing were held in July to air the costs and benefits of the plan, and if Gurley wins his runoff, then a consensus might form by early August around the idea that transit would be good for business, and building a transit system over the next decade in Wake County could be a major jobs-producer for Raleigh and its suburbs.
August is late for a referendum campaign to begin. But if it follows on a consensus-building process that begins today, it needn't be too late. (I've changed this sentence on reflection — I said late August initially, but with early voting, I think the schedule moves up some.)
The statement from CAFT:
Groups, Citizens to Urge County Commissioners for Transit Referendum
Members of the Capital Area Friends of Transit (CAFT) will go to the Wake Board of Commissioners today to urge the Commission’s immediate action on the Wake transit plan and transit funding referendum. CAFT is an alliance of 1600 citizens, civic leaders, and 43 local and state organizations that support expanding and improving regional public transit in the Triangle. The Commission meets at 2 pm, with public comment at 2:30 pm, during which time, many CAFT supporters will speak.
Wake Commissioner Erv Portman today is expected to offer a resolution calling for a public hearing on the transit plan. Wake’s Board of Commissioners have had the draft Wake transit proposal since November 2011, and recent efforts to hold discussion on the plan have been prevented and voted down. In order to put the transit funding half-cent sale tax referendum on the ballot this November, the Commission must act now because a public hearing is required and there is a late July/August deadline to get ballots printed.
Wake County Chairman Coble has stalled action at the county and municipal levels. The County has failed to send the finalized plan and a proposed Inter-local Agreement to the Wake town councils, despite a promise that the County would do so. Most of the mayors in Wake County have indicated support for the plan and holding the referendum this year. Morrisville and Raleigh City Councils passed resolutions calling for a November referendum. A recent poll shows 60% of Wake voters would support the half-cent sales tax, and 78% of Wake voters want to vote on the plan this general election. All three Triangle counties must act to implement the regional transit plan of expanded and improved bus service, commuter and light rail. Durham voters approved the sales tax last November, and the Orange County commission voted to put it on the Orange ballot this November.