River Tax 2007: Why "no" won

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An edited version of this column appeared in the October 17, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is not available online. Posted online October 6, 2017.

Why no

By Michael D. Bates

Every aeronautical engineering student is taught that given enough thrust, you can make a brick fly. You need a lot less thrust, of course, to power an airframe that's tapered and streamlined, designed for moving efficiently through the air, designed to make the best use of the forces acting upon it.

The proponents of the Tulsa County sales tax for river projects had an opportunity this summer to develop an approach to Arkansas River development, using existing revenues and resources, that could have glided easily on the prevailing winds of public opinion.

Instead, they engineered a brick and tried to shove it aloft with a $1.3 million campaign budget and plenty of free exposure in the daily paper and on local television. As much financial thrust as they had at their disposal, it wasn't enough to put this clunker of a plan in the air and keep it there.

With a 6,286-vote, five-percentage-point margin, it would be tempting for the vote yes folks to second-guess all their decisions and imagine that they could have won a narrow victory if only they had handled some aspect of the media campaign differently.

$1.3 million is record-setting for a local sales tax vote, and the Our River Yes campaign out-raised No River Tax by better than 100 to one.

And who can put a value on page after page of news stories and editorials touting the tax increase in the daily paper?

The yes campaign used the financial advantage exactly the way they should have. They took polls and convened focus groups to shape their message in the most appealing way possible. The information gleaned from voter research went into slickly produced TV ads featuring cute kids and senior citizens and countless four-color postcards and magazines mailed out to Tulsa County voters. They used phone surveys to identify their supporters and made sure their supporters got to the polls.

To prevent the opposition from getting an earned-media boost, the Our River Yes people successfully avoided having even one televised debate. Public meetings were referred to as "informational meetings" at which rebuttals were not permitted.

For all the money they spent trying to manipulate our emotions, the Our River Yes campaign did almost nothing to explain to voters exactly what we were voting on. They have only themselves to blame if some voters believed the plan included high-rises on islands in the river.

Here's what $1.3 million bought:

Before the campaign began, a poll showed that 52.2% opposed a sales tax increase for river projects.

On election day, 52.5% voted against the tax increase.

Evidently, a lot of voters made their decision as soon as they heard the words "sales tax increase for river projects." The same July poll shows river development as a low priority - desirable, sure, but not worth a tax increase, not when crime and streets need so much attention.

Not to say I told you so, but back in the August 2-9 issue, I wrote,

"The commissioners will almost certainly vote Thursday to schedule an October 9 election. Supporters of the new tax will pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into a slick PR campaign, confident that they can get the majority of votes they need, even at the cost of feeding public cynicism by brazenly asking citizens to tax themselves twice for the same projects. Those who prefer an alternative funding approach for river improvements will be dismissed as anti-river, anti-progress, anti-Tulsa.

"The same old playbook may work again, but the antagonism of officials and residents in the county's second largest city and the booming northern suburbs changes the political calculus. We will go through a contentious 60 days, tax promoters will spend a fortune, political capital will be squandered, and in the end the county commissioners may find themselves back at square one, finding a way to finance river projects without a new sales tax."

In saying that this tax proposal was fatally flawed, I don't want to minimize the importance of the formal opposition. The presence of credible opposition voices provided affirmation to voters that their gut instincts against the tax were reasonable.

We should particularly acknowledge the courage of the elected officials who stood against the tax increase, aware that their opposition could draw well-financed retribution at their next re-election bid.

Four years ago, only two elected officials in the entire county were willing to identify themselves publicly as opponents of Vision 2025 - State Sen. Randy Brogdon and Glenpool Councilor Keith Robinson. A combination of political pressure and pork barrel promises kept everyone else in line.

This time around Brogdon was joined by Tulsa city councilors Jack Henderson, Roscoe Turner, and John Eagleton, and the entire political establishment of Broken Arrow - the mayor, city council, chamber of commerce, and school board - standing up for the basic needs of their constituents. County Assessor Ken Yazel showed true grit, braving the disapproval of his county courthouse colleagues by speaking his mind against a new county sales tax.

New to politics, Ted and Andrea Darr provided an internet home base for the opposition, shattering the myth of young professional unanimity in support of the tax.

Even the oft-derided yard signs mattered, assuring skeptical voters that many of their neighbors shared their doubts.

The vote yes campaign handed the opposition several gifts.

The first was the stubborn refusal of County Commissioner Randi Miller and other officials to acknowledge two indisputable facts, obvious to anyone who bothered to look up the relevant documents: That the two new low-water dams and modifications to Zink Dam were included in Vision 2025, and that most of the project money in this package was going to projects not included in the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan.

What if, instead, proponents had said up front, "We guessed wrong about how much new dams would cost, we were wrong about the prospects for federal funds, no one was minding the store when the cost of the arena spiraled out of control and we spent the overage money we had planned to use on the dams on the arena instead, and it's easier to ask you for more tax money than it is to reorganize our priorities to get the dams built as promised"? What if they'd admitted that the proposal included several major items that hadn't been vetted through the master plan review process?

Such an admission would have raised other uncomfortable issues, but it might have reduced the impact of the trust issue. At least it would have been honest.

It didn't help the vote yes campaign that Tulsa County voters had a dramatic reminder of poor judgment on the part of Miller and other county officials: Despite beautiful weather nearly every day, the Tulsa State Fair dropped in attendance and midway receipts, due in large part to Miller's push to evict Bell's Amusement Park the previous fall.

With Bell's gone, those who came to the fair had less reason to stick around and spend money, and less reason to come back for a second visit. If fairgoers hadn't planned to boycott the Murphy Bros. midway already, several injuries on Murphy rides persuaded many to stay away.

(Why would Miller et al. grant a 10 year midway lease to a company that has all its rides on wheels, while putting a family-owned local business with millions invested in permanent structures, a 51-year-tenant of the fairgrounds, on the equivalent of a month-to-month lease?)

The vote yes campaign got caught in a couple of other fibs. There was the TV ad featuring the old fellow with the Walter Cronkite mustache, who told us, "Streets to the river will be improved, the first step in a street improvement program." That assertion was easy pickings for a Fox 23 News "Truth Test" feature that aired two nights before the election, labeling the claim false.

Perhaps the biggest gift the over-funded proponents gave to the opposition was the misleading postcard sent to Broken Arrow voters, featuring an artist's conception labeled "Broken Arrow Riverfront," a project for which no funds were included in the package on the October 9 ballot. Broken Arrow leaders held a press conference the day before the election denouncing the deception. KOTV viewers heard Randi Miller say that the picture wasn't misleading "because it not once says that this is what is going to happen."

OK... next tax election, expect to see flying cars in the campaign sketches.

The next day motivated Broken Arrow voters turned out in droves to vote down the tax by a two-to-one margin.

We're told that that mail piece was the work of AH Strategies, run by Republican consultants Fount Holland and Karl Ahlgren. (Remember those names. You'll likely hear them again as the state ethics commission probes Republican campaign fund transfers.) AH Strategies was responsible for the misleading mail pieces smearing District Attorney Tim Harris in his contentious 2006 Republican primary race against attorney Brett Swab.

There was collateral damage: INCOG burned a good deal of the credibility the regional planning agency had earned from the careful way it developed the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan and the thorough approach it took last year to reviewing "The Channels" proposal for inclusion in the ARCMP. Instead of remaining an honest broker, its leaders were coopted to blur the distinction between the ARCMP and the proposal on the ballot.

TYpros, the Astroturf young professionals organization controlled by the Tulsa Metro Chamber, threw itself under the vote yes bus, alienating many of its members and projecting an image of young professionals as whiny, bored children demanding that daddy and mommy give them a pretty new plaything. (We've met enough entrepreneurial YPs who are busy "making their own cool" - to borrow a phrase from Jamie Pierson - that we know the TYpros' attitude isn't typical of the demographic.)

Bruce Plante, the daily paper's brand new editorial cartoonist, must be wondering what the heck he's gotten himself into. In two of his first four cartoons he was directed to depict no voters as brainless troglodytes, insulting what turns out to be a majority of his potential readers.

I was hopeful that new leadership at the Chamber plus George Kaiser's involvement would mean a different tone to this campaign, but that hope was disappointed.

The most damaging effect of this campaign is that, in the process of trying to persuade voters that the county's sales tax increase was the only way to make something good happen on our riverfront, many of our elected leaders drank deeply of their own Kool-Aid.

Miller said after the election, "There is no plan B. River development is over." Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor said that Tulsans didn't want river development, and she was moving on to other priorities.

Happily, after a few days of cooling off, there seems to be some willingness by the tax proponents to work with tax opponents to do what could have been done two months and $1.3 million ago: Move ahead with a City of Tulsa TIF to acquire land for west bank development and with engineering and permitting on the low-water dams and Zink Dam improvements approved in Vision 2025.

I'm hoping that the City Council will act either this week or next to pass a resolution requesting that the Taylor administration start the process for establishing a west bank TIF district, giving Tulsa the same tool that Jenks and Bixby are using to assist riverfront development.

Next week, a look at what went right during the river tax campaign, and how we move forward from here.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 17, 2007 5:59 PM.

KOTV on why the river tax failed was the previous entry in this blog.

St. Augustine Academy Fall Banquet, October 26 is the next entry in this blog.

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