The sound defeat of a referendum to increase the local option sales tax rate to pay for much-needed Pre-K programs for Memphis children is a reminder of how easy it is to position almost any issue as a fight between the haves and the have-nots.
It’s also a reminder of how some people seem willing to widen that divide for their own political narcissism, but the saddest thing of all was how many voters ended up confused about the facts and about who’s telling the truth and frustrated by the rancorous debate about something as fundamental as the future of our children, and in the end, many of them voted against their own personal self-interest as a result.
It’s hard to think of a better case study at the ballot box of how the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Memphis voted down the good after a steady diet of untruths, fear-mongering, anecdotal information, conspiracy theories, and more. It was a sad day for many reasons, and only one was the result of the referendum.
It’s easy to chalk up the vote as further evidence of a city that cares too little about itself and the issues that matter most if Memphis is to move from its customary position on the bottom rungs for most indicators that define a successful city – young professionals, college attainment, per capita income, jobs growth, and talent.
A Bridge Too Far
Polling in Memphis has consistently shown that a majority of the public favors Pre-K, but in special referenda, polling results are much less important than the results of a thorough GOTV plan because in the end, it’s all about getting out your vote. It is a cliché – but nonetheless true – that when you have ample funding, an issue that a majority of the public supports, and you still fail, it is a given that the campaign strategy or execution was flawed in some way.
Perhaps, as much as anything, the decision to schedule a referendum to increase sales taxes in the wake of increases of the City of Memphis property tax rate and fees made this an uphill battle. Second, just like the failed Pre-K campaign of last year, there was too much of an assumption that the public really understands what Pre-K really is. Third, most single issue referenda have to spark an emotional connection that motivates supporters to go to the polls, and the emotional battle was being won by opponents.
We’re not saying that some high-profile opponents to the Pre-K funding proposal didn’t have philosophical or practical problems with this particular approach. After all, some of them supported the countywide sales tax increase that went down to defeat last year (and some of the people who were in favor of a city-only sales tax increase were against last year’s proposal). Some of these people also perceived an implied slap at Shelby County Schools in the Pre-K plan’s separate process and structure for implementing Pre-K.
At times, it seemed that the referendum was about everything but Pre-K. It was a referendum about Mayor Wharton, about the city Councilmen leading the campaign, about the regressive system of Tennessee taxes (which city government is powerless to change), about whether the campaign was a property tax decrease for the middle class in Pre-K clothing, about city government priorities, and about much more.
All that aside, there are many Memphis voters who grow weary of the adult games that deal with power and control and who’s a political winner and who’s a political loser when all they want is Pre-K for every child in Memphis.
Trying Something Different
Now that we’ve tried to pass a sales tax increase two ways in two years and both failed, maybe it’s time to approach this as a community-building campaign rather than a typically political one.
It seems clear that we need more people to feel ownership of this issue and that this ownership needs to be bubbling upward from the grassroots as much as it’s being advocated by a campaign. It needs for more people to feel that they have a voice and become invested in a plan and for a process where all key partners can be engaged as the program is developed. Rather than continue to find success in political tactics and campaigns, perhaps another option is to step back and take the time needed to build a more broad-based, robust grassroots support group for Pre-K.
It also seems to go without saying that if another referendum is scheduled, timing is paramount.
There is nothing in Memphis surrounded by more false information and untruths than City Hall, and for that reason, it seems like whether there is ever another referendum or not, city officials need to mount a dramatic, comprehensive, and continuing informational campaign to get out the facts about city government. It’s been said often in recent weeks by some opponents that they are against the sales tax increase because corrupt city elected officials can’t be trusted to spend the money right.
Stick to the Facts
The willingness by some people to satiate their own political conceit by undermining public confidence in their own government is one of the most disturbing trends in politics today at all levels of government. The fact is that if someone has evidence of corruption in City Hall, they should call the F.B.I. or U.S. Attorney so it can be prosecuted.
Otherwise, they should temper their wild accusations and stick more closely to the truth. Just because you don’t like what someone in local government is doing, the agenda they are pursuing, or their political position, it does not make them corrupt, venal, or amoral.
These are hard times for city governments across the U.S., but they are especially hard for Memphis, because of low property values, high poverty rates, low density, and too much land area in which to deliver public services. These are challenges that deserve Memphis’ best efforts by a people united by a shared commitment to a better future.
Debate and discussion are nothing short of essential in developing an agenda, but demagoguery and epithets should be called what they are: immature behaviors that disrupt the work of people of good will to find common ground for solutions.
Last year, we predicted that the referendum to increase the countywide local option sales tax would fail because city government was slow to support it and did not say soon enough how it would spend the money that it would have received, and this year, we did not expect passage because the timing, the environment, and the political foundation seemed questionable.
It was always a long shot for the referendum to pass in today’s cauldron of negativity, distrust, and frustration about taxes, and those same factors should prevent any consideration of another referendum until a foundation of better information is laid and stronger get out the vote machinery is put in place.
In particular, the failed Pre-K vote should act as a cautionary tale as the Greater Memphis Chamber considers the creation of a PAC and more involvement in important public policy issues. There is a facetious comment in political circles here that the business community has never won an election, and while that is hyperbole, it speaks to the need for business-led initiatives to be as mindful of the need for a process that produces bottom-up support as it is to mount top-down campaigns.
Pre-K is an issue that is too important for Memphis that it will now simply fade away. It can be a key to giving children better opportunities in the future, and it is a link in the chain that reduces the poverty rate in Memphis. But, more than anything, it will be back, because the need to give every child a fair start in life is too important for their future and the future of Memphis for us to ignore it.