POSTED ON OCTOBER 3, 2007:
Voting for Plutocracy
A vote yes might get Tulsa more than it bargained for
"Does that disturb you?"
My lunch companion asked the question after a lengthy lull in an otherwise lively conversation. I can only guess at what my countenance must have conveyed.
He had just been explaining to me how we wouldn't need to worry about elected officials acting imprudently with the new river tax money. The $100 million or so in private donations would give the donors leverage over the elected officials, and the donors intended to use it.
I thought back to a Step-Up Tulsa meeting I had attended last year. This group also talked about using the billions that Tulsa's large charitable foundations have accumulated, not simply to spend it directly for useful projects, but as a lever to shift government priorities, to reorient the spending of taxpayer dollars to fit the priorities of the private foundations.
Even if I assume that the foundations' goals are laudable, there's something deeply wrong with that approach.
I struggled to explain why the notion troubled me to the point of speechlessness. Finally I said, "Instead of using this money leverage to get elected officials to do what you think they should, why not help intelligent, creative, and discerning critical thinkers get elected to office?"
In the realm of politics, it's still possible for the will of the majority to trump the will of the wealthy. Sure, more money means their message gets more exposure, means they can hire focus groups to craft their image and message to resonate with the voters, means they can identify their supporters and badger them with phone calls on election day until they go vote.
But for all that money, they can still lose. If you don't believe me, ask President John Connally, California Sen. Michael Huffington, and Oklahoma Governor Gary Richardson.
You can knock on enough doors, marshal passionate supporters, give expression to the voters' deep-seated concerns, and, when the votes are counted, you can beat someone even if the other side has millions to spend and you have only thousands.
There ought to be at least one realm of society which is not subject to the rule of the marketplace. Politics and governance shouldn't be up for sale to the highest bidder.
(By the same token, not every realm of society should be subject to the tyranny of the majority, either.)
To millionaires and billionaires seeking to use their wealth as leverage to mould public policy to their will, the most valued qualities in a public official would not be intelligence, critical thinking skills, or curiosity, but pliability and credulity.
They'd be best served by the kind of elected official who will nod his head vigorously and salivate when presented with wildly optimistic economic impact numbers. An official who asks for the rationale and basis for the numbers would be seen as an obstacle, not a public asset.
I don't often describe myself as horrified, appalled, nauseated, or outraged by some political development. Those words ought to be reserved for a truly visceral reaction -- something that really makes one's hair stand on end, face go pale, stomach turn, or blood pressure rise, respectively.
The idea of the wealthy using their private charitable contributions as leverage to shift public priorities gives me the creeps.
As of September 24, the vote yes campaign has raised $1.1 million and spent nearly $700,000. That doesn't count money spent on charitable donations, campaign contributions, or threats of campaign contributions to a potential opponent in order to leverage key endorsements.
Even if they weren't persuaded by the problems with the specifics of the river sales tax proposal, I'd hope that Tulsa County residents would rebel against the sheer amount of money being expended to get this thing passed. Public priorities shouldn't be for sale to the highest bidder.
This is Just a Test
Here's a thought experiment regarding priorities:
You own a small café that has seen better days. The carpet is stained and torn, the booth seats are ripped, and the chairs wobble. The lights in the parking lot are broken, and customers occasionally get mugged. The food is good, but your sign (hidden by high weeds) advertises the least popular dish on the menu.
You have $2,000 available to try to rebuild your customer base. Should you:
Use the $2,000 to fix the carpet, booths, chairs, and lights, pull the weeds, and improve your advertising?
Use the $2,000 to build a beautiful koi pond in the lobby in hopes that it will attract enough new customers to bring in as much as $400 that you can then afford to fix the carpet, booths, chairs, and lights, pull the weeds, and improve your advertising?
Which answer do you think you'd get from the company that sells koi pond supplies?
So what should we do after next Tuesday, after we've voted down (I hope) the proposed county sales tax increase?
Use the Vision 2025 dollars that are already allocated for two new low water dams and the modifications for the existing Zink Lake dam at 31st Street to finish the engineering work for those projects. Develop and submit the application to the Corps of Engineers for a construction permit, a process likely to take at least two years.
In the meantime, county officials should lay out a clear month-by-month spending plan for Vision 2025 -- what money is already committed for debt service and for remaining projects -- and see if there's any room to move the funding of the promised construction of the dams higher up the priority list.
At the same time, county officials should keep an eye on sales tax receipts; if growth continues at its current pace, another $16 million could be available over and above the county's revenue estimates by the time the permits are granted.
Once the Corps has given its blessing, combine available Vision 2025 funds and Federal dollars. If there's still not enough to do the dam work, then and only then county officials should go to the voters for just enough extra tax dollars to finish those promised Vision 2025 projects. Any other river projects should go on a separate ballot item.
As for west bank land acquisition, Oklahoma's Local Development Act, specifically 68 O. S. 854, authorizes local governments to use revenues from a Tax Increment Finance district to acquire land. The City of The Village, an inner suburb of Oklahoma City, is using such an approach to redevelop its town center. Given that the TIF for Jenks' River District is projected to raise $220 million for that project, it's not hard to imagine that a City of Tulsa west bank development TIF could bring in enough money to acquire the concrete plant north of 23rd Street, which was valued last year at $37 million.
We can make our river happen without raising taxes.
Less a "Gift," More a Bribe
The composition of the proposed Tulsa County sales tax package is a perfect example of the use of private leverage to override the plans and priorities of public officials.
Instead of allocating the full $282 million to implement projects in the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan, more than half of the project money ($135 million) and all of the private donations will be used to implement a plan for the river developed by Canadian architect Bing Thom under commission from the George Kaiser Family Foundation. You'll remember Bing Thom as the guy behind last fall's proposal called "The Channels."
The Kaiser/Thom plan is not The Channels, but like The Channels, the projects in the Kaiser/Thom plan are not part of the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan (ARCMP). But a glance back through last fall's news coverage reveals that the two outside plans have been treated very differently.
Last fall when The Channels were proposed, officials set up a three-month-long process to study the proposal and consider whether it should be incorporated into the ARCMP. It was described as "an expeditious but rigid technical review."
There were several technical committees examining the impact of The Channels proposal on the ecosystem, including stormwater drainage and endangered species. In the course of the process, many new concerns came to light, issues that might have been lost in a rush to the ballot.
A fifty-member advisory committee would have decided whether to recommend The Channels for incorporation into the ARCMP. Then the matter would have been considered by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, the Tulsa County Commission, and the Tulsa City Council, as an amendment to the ARCMP and the Comprehensive Plan.
All of these steps had to be completed before the County Commission would submit a tax package for The Channels for voter approval.
A year later, barely a month passed between the public announcement of the Kaiser/Thom proposal until the County Commission scheduled a vote. None of the process that was used for The Channels has been followed this year. The Kaiser/Thom proposal hasn't been brought forward as an amendment to the ARCMP and the Comprehensive Plan. Instead, the vote yes campaign is using sleight of hand to make voters believe that the proposed sales tax package is consistent with the ARCMP and the Comprehensive Plan.
A precedent was set with the process used to evaluate The Channels as an amendment to the ARCMP. That precedent wasn't followed with the Kaiser/Thom proposal currently before us. Why not?
Would You Vote with Inhofe?
As I file this story, there are rumblings that Sen. Jim Inhofe will announce his support for the tax increase. If tax backers expect this to sway conservative Republicans to vote yes, they're likely to be disappointed.
Tulsa County's grassroots conservatives aren't the sort to jump on bandwagons. Their loyalty to a politician is tied to his loyalty to the principles and issues that motivate their involvement in politics. When a Republican official deviates from those principles - for example, President Bush's support for amnesty for illegal immigrants - he alienates himself from his base of supporters and his approval ratings plummet.
The grassroots sentiment of the Tulsa County Republican Party was made plain in the platform that was adopted at February's county convention: "We oppose increasing taxes to fund river development projects. We support the use of TIF districts to facilitate river development. We urge Tulsa County Commissioners not to propose any increase in county sales tax."
Republican candidates and officials are free to deviate from the platform, but that deviation can come at a political cost.
If Inhofe backs the tax increase, will local conservatives still vote for his re-election to the Senate in 2008? Most likely. Will they volunteer, donate, and urge their friends to support him? That remains to be seen, but it will further damage the bond of trust with the grassroots that has carried Inhofe to one victory after another.
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This is my last column before the October 9th election. Keep an eye on my blog, batesline.com, for in-depth analysis of last-minute developments.
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