Here we go again. As predicted, the Tulsa County Commissioners voted 3-0 to schedule an October 9 vote on a seven-year county sales tax increase, four-tenths of a cent on the dollar, to pay for $282 million of river-related projects.
As I wrote last week, the battle lines are already forming, with city officials from Broken Arrow, Glenpool, and the north county towns emerging as the most prominent opponents of the Smaligo-Miller-Perry tax increase. Someone--I don't know who--has set up a very basic website at notulsarivertax.com.
None of the concerns that were raised in this column and by other voices were addressed in the plan that the County Commission approved.
I intend to do all I can, in these pages and at batesline.com, to puncture the puffery and stymie the spin of the campaign, but I'll leave it to others to take the lead this time around.
Public-choice theory predicts that in a situation like this, where you have concentrated benefits on one side (millions for a small number of contractors, bond advisers, program managers) and diffuse costs (hundreds of thousands of households paying less than $1,000 over seven years), nearly all the campaign cash will collect on the pro-tax side.
Tax opponents are typically outspent by 20-to-one. Without the ability to pay for mass advertising among the more sensational, less thoughtful media, i.e., radio or TV or mass mailings, they look for other opportunities to get their side of the story to interested voters. Tax proponents, seeking to maintain their financial advantage, look for ways to block opponents from neighborhood meetings and broadcast debates.
As a veteran of earlier sales tax battles, I'm familiar with the tactics that the pro-tax forces use to keep any message but theirs away from the voters.
They learned a lesson after the defeat of the 1997 "Tulsa Project." Back then nearly every TV station broadcast a debate between Mayor Susan Savage and Terry Simonson, putting the two sides on equal footing.
(That was the old Terry Simonson, the one that opposed higher tax rates and was willing to stand up against the local establishment. Whatever happened to him?)
In subsequent elections, tax proponents did what they could to avoid situations that gave them and the opposition equal stature and an equal opportunity to influence the public.
Supporters of the tax are saying it's a great plan and a unique opportunity. If that's so, it should stand up to close scrutiny. Its backers shouldn't need to use underhanded tactics to keep the opposition's best arguments and arguers away from the public.
So I'd like to propose seven rules of engagement for this two-month tax battle.
Playing By the Rules
1. To both sides: Drop the alarmism. People aren't going to leave Tulsa if this tax passes. Companies aren't going to head for the exits.
If the sales tax were going to vault by five cents on the dollar overnight, there might be a reason to worry, but Tulsans seem to have a tolerance for the gradual increase in sales tax by a penny or a half-penny at a time. It's just like boiling a frog in a kettle.
On the other hand, Tulsa isn't going to dry up and blow away if this tax doesn't pass. There are other ways of implementing the river plan--e.g., having the county commissioners keep their Vision 2025 promises and build the two, low-water dams and the Zink Lake modifications with the tax we already passed. The announced commercial developments can happen regardless. And beyond the river there are plenty of other things we can and should do to attract new residents and new businesses.
2. To the bureaucrats: Stick with the facts. You INCOG planners have accumulated a great deal of credibility for the way you gathered and incorporated public input in the creation of the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan. You'll jeopardize that credibility if you let yourselves be used as pro-tax spinners.
If invited to speak to a public gathering, make the ballot resolution your bible. That's the official, formal, legal description of what happens if people vote for the tax--stick to it. Give us the engineering estimates and technical details that back up the dollar amounts, but leave the excuses for broken Vision 2025 promises and inflated estimates of private investment to the politicians. Don't let them use you to bolster their own credibility.
Above all, make sure the public understands the distinction and differences between the 42-mile master plan and the package that will be on the October 9 ballot.
3. To the proponents: Drop the puffery and emotionalism. Last week in UTW, Commissioner Randi Miller's deputy Terry Simonson (the new Terry Simonson) tried to convey the impression that there was more than $850 million in private riverfront investment dependent on the outcome of this tax increase vote. He was careful to avoid saying exactly that--he's not a lawyer for nothing--because it isn't true. Of that $850 million, $750 million are investments that are already underway or aren't dependent on new low water dams.
Lynn Mitchell's $200 million plans in Jenks? He and his partners have already bought the land and hired a developer. Tim Remy's $50 million plans for the Bixby waterfront? He's already getting a $5 million incentive from Bixby, and his investment won't benefit from any of the projects in the Smaligo-Miller-Perry tax increase.
The purported $500 million from Branson Landing's developers? They want to locate on the west bank at 21st, where we already have a low-water dam, water in the river, proximity to major streets and expressways, and a beautiful skyline view. They don't need this tax increase to pass--they just need some cooperation from City of Tulsa officials.
That leaves just the $100 million or so pledged by Kaiser, QuikTrip, et al., for non-commercial "gathering places" on the east bank. Nice, but hardly an $850 million dollar "gold mine."
Whatever the benefits of the Smaligo-Miller-Perry river tax plan, it won't cure your acne or transform your soul. A sound plan shouldn't depend on "as seen on TV" marketing hype.
4. To the public officials: Face the music. Don't avoid the tough questions and tough questioners. Last time, county commissioners and other elected officials refused to appear on 1170 KFAQ or in any other venue where they might face uncomfortable questions or have their spin unspun. This time, dare to be a Daniel in the lion's den. If you really believe in this plan, you should be willing to defend it anywhere.
5. To the corporate backers and campaign managers: Lay off the pressure tactics. Last week a BOk employee confirmed what had long been rumored: During the Vision 2025 campaign, BOk employees had to expressly opt out if they did not want a "vote yes" sign in their front yard.
This employee defended BOk's actions, but acknowledged that a message on the corporate intranet announced the company's support for the tax increase. The official message instructed employees to click a weblink if they did not want to have a "vote yes" sign placed at their address.
At a time of high-tech job loss in Tulsa, I doubt many employees dared to opt out. Certainly no one who valued his job would dare to expose or publicly question the practice.
If this is such a great plan, you shouldn't need to use subtle or overt pressure to get people to show their support for it. It's not an appropriate use of workplace authority.
Another debate-stifling tactic from 2003 has already resurfaced. Neighborhood associations and other groups planning to host public forums have been told that only supporters of the tax should be permitted to participate. Some of this pressure comes from funding sources for the forum-hosting organization.
In previous campaigns, this pressure has come from public officials or the "vote yes" campaign. The group is told that if an opponent is allowed to speak, no one from the "vote yes" side will show up, and it wouldn't be fair to have a debate if the "vote yes" side isn't represented.
So to those under pressure to exclude the opposition:
6. And to the TV stations, neighborhood associations, and other sponsors of public forums: Include both sides equally. In 2003, KRMG was a profile in courage. The Vision 2025 "vote yes" campaign office refused to send a representative to the Kiwanis Club debate, in hopes that the station would drop it. Station news management decided to go ahead whether the proponents sent a debater or not, and the "vote yes" side relented.
You're going to be told that it's fair to allow only the "vote yes" side to speak, because people in the audience will still be able to ask them questions. But under those conditions, the proponents will be able to give incorrect, incomplete, and misleading answers, with no opportunity for rebuttal.
Now that it's on the ballot, this has become a political issue, with responsible and knowledgeable people on both sides. Allowing both sides to send their best representatives will give the voters in your audience the most complete understanding of the proposal.
7. To the Tulsa Metro Chamber and the George Kaiser Family Foundation: Insist on a fair fight.
Two forces have the power to enforce the above rules of engagement and to set the right tone for this debate.
Mike Neal, as new Chamber CEO, you have the opportunity to rebuild the Chamber's reputation after years of damage from the heavy, ineffectual hand of your predecessor, Jay Clemens.
The Chamber can set the tone: An open and vigorous debate about an important public issue would communicate that Tulsa is open to new ideas, new businesses, new initiatives. Shutting down debate would perpetuate Tulsa's image as an insider's club, where you have to go along to get along, a city closed to young, creative entrepreneurs.
George Kaiser, your personal reputation and that of your foundation and its leadership are at stake, because you brought forward the plan and organized the pledges for private contributions if the tax passes. Your $50 million pledge gives you a lot of leverage over the conduct of the "vote yes" campaign; you can get their attention just by clearing your throat.
Whatever the outcome on October 9, I hope both sides and all Tulsa County voters can look back and be proud of the way the campaign was conducted.
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