THE BUZZ 5: Penny For Your Thoughts

By on November 15, 2016

Making sense of the 1 percent sales tax failure.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last week Teton County voters shot down the 1 percent general sales tax ballot measure in a 6,800 to 5,435 vote. Money generated from the sales tax increase would have gone into the newly created Community Priorities Fund. Jackson visitors would have paid likely two-thirds to three-quarters of the sales tax. Food is not taxed. The projected 12 million dollars of annual revenue would have been split evenly between the valley’s most pressing issues: housing and transportation. The ballot measure was a sticking point for many. All local candidates, the Town of Jackson, many local organizations, parties, and political action committees took a stand for or against it. Interestingly, voters chose the candidates who were vociferous proponents of the measure, while the candidates who opposed it lost. Where was the disconnect?

Two town council candidates specifically held contrasting views of the 1 percent sales tax. Incumbent Councilman Jim Stanford crafted pro-tax campaign ads that were a playful attack against the anti-tax ads from an organization called Keep Wyoming Wild. Stanford, who won the council race with the most votes of any town candidate, called the mismatched results bewildering.

Challenger Judd Grossman, who did not secure a seat on the council, vocally opposed the tax measure, using campaign ads to call for its defeat. “It’s rare to find a candidate that comes even 70 percent of the way towards your perfect choice. The tax vote gave the public an opportunity to have a voice on a very specific issue,” he said.

All of the other local election winners, however, came out in favor of the tax: Councilwoman Hailey Morton Levinson, Commissioner Natalia D. Macker, Commissioner-elect Greg Epstein, and Mayor-elect Pete Muldoon.

Muldoon may have benefited from the underlying political tones to a degree. People seem to be relatively fed up with politics and the status quo, which could potentially explain the contrary election results. Muldoon says it’s hard to pinpoint the disconnect between the winners and the sales tax but that “it’s certainly possible that voters didn’t want to approve the tax without knowing who was going to be elected. And maybe we needed to do a better job of making our case.”

The mayor-elect says he plans to move forward in May with SPET, a special purpose excise tax geared specifically to capital projects that is decided upon by voters, in May and will keep all options on the table. “We know the housing crisis is the number one issue in the community, and we will find a way to fund the solutions,” he said.

The winners in this election were either long-time residents of Jackson Hole, incumbents, or some combination of both, and perhaps the mismatched result of winners and the sales tax defeat aren’t so confounding. Before the primary, economist Jonathan Schecter gave a two-part “algorithm” for local election results. “Winning requires name recognition. In local races that’s usually correlated with how long someone has lived in Jackson Hole … Because being in office boosts name recognition, unless they’re wildly incompetent, incumbents usually win re-election.” The sales tax then took a backseat to popularity.

For Epstein, it has more to do with funding and ads. “Save Historic Jackson Hole outspent the proponents of the 1 percent tax and ultimately filled the airwaves with misinformation on an already tricky subject to discuss,” he said.

Save Historic Jackson Hole (SHJH) was a vehement opponent of the tax. Self-described advocates of “responsible planning and development, strong community values, and respect for nature,” they wish to protect Jackson’s character and promote a “sustainable community.” The reasons presented by SHJH against the sales tax were compelling and plentiful, and according to the SHJH website, were taken directly from a recent Tea Party anti-one-percent sales tax advertisement. Speaking directly to the readers, their arguments hinged on general tax opposition, lack of trust for electeds, the need to fix government spending in general.

However, one argument that seemed to be inaccurately presented by SHJH was that the main proponent of the tax, the Community Priorities Coalition (CPC), was a clandestine organization of unknowns. They claimed CPC misleadingly concealed the fact that passing the sales tax would result in new ‘discretionary’ funds and questioned who these unknowns would directly benefit.

However, the CPC website describes its coalition as “a diverse group of local individuals and organizations committed to addressing Jackson Hole’s highest priorities.” All of its players were listed at the bottom of the website and in various ads. There’s no evidence that the freeing up of general funds was purposely withheld from the conversation. Various candidates spoke about the advantage to passing the 1 percent sales tax in light of state budget cuts and the need to make up social service funding locally.

CPC arguments were more cogent than those of SHJH. They countered practically all of the opposition arguments but did so dryly using only facts and numbers while not engaging directly with the reader. There were relatively sophisticated videos addressing common questions and issues but no way to tell how many times the videos had been viewed. CPC reasons to support the tax were largely focused on the benefits derived from the new revenue or were in response to opposing views.

Some have pointed to confusing ballot language as the reason for the failure. Teton County Clerk’s Chief Deputy Melissa Shinkle said there were similar complaints about the confusing nature of the District 2 Referendum language in September. Shinkle said the language is crafted by town and county attorneys and is then approved by electeds.

Even if the language is straightforward, people may read things differently in the ballot box, which is why campaigns circulate actual ballots to prepare voters. Sometimes too, when voters are faced with issues they do not understand, many simply vote ‘no.’

The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance played a key role in gaining support for the measure with its door-to-door canvassing and other grassroots efforts.

“The unhelpful ballot language, along with well-funded and organized opposition, made it very challenging to pass this measure,” said Craig Benjamin, the Alliance’s executive director. “While it’s disappointing that Teton County voters did not support this measure, our community now has the opportunity to continue the conversation about how to best address our housing and transportation challenges. Benjamin says he is also hopeful to expand valley dialogue now to include protecting wildlife and improving habitat connectivity.

SHJH speculated on their website that the tax question was a referendum on tax hikes in general, on trust for the electeds, and on “socialism” in local government. PJH

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