Strapped for time and money, a coalition of local activists mounts an eleventh-hour effort to defeat the sales tax proposal on the countywide Feb. 8 special election ballot.
Voters will decide whether the 0.625% countywide sales tax that currently secures $54.6 million in road bonds and expires at the end of June will be extended through June 2027 to provide revenue to repair and replace roads and bridges maintained by the City of Hot Springs and Garland County.
Attendees at Thursday night’s Garland Good Government Group rally at the Garland County Library said the For Our Roads Now committee which promotes the sales tax extension left the community little time to digest what is on offer. The Garland County Quorum Court set the Feb. 8 election date at its November meeting, the Monday before Thanksgiving.
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The GGGG and the Garland County TEA Party have less than three weeks left to counter the committee’s advocacy campaign before early voting begins Feb. 1.
They are short of funds from the committee, which reported a cash balance of $18,272 in the December financial report it filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission earlier that month. The money comes from the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce’s Political Action Committee contribution of $25,000 last month.
The activist said they weren’t surprised by the contribution, given that the city and county have annual contracts for economic development services with the chamber-affiliated Hot Springs Metro Partnership, which pay to the nonprofit corporation $187,500 a year.
The Garland County Tax Alliance, the local ballot issues committee through which the counter-advocacy campaign is underway, reported a cash balance of $209.92 in its November financial report. Leaders of the group who met on Thursday solicited donations from attendees.
“We have an opportunity to stop this tax,” Reggie Cowan of the local TEA Party told the group. “This is going to require all of us to talk to our neighbours, friends, family, church members and community groups. Tell them there will be a special election on February 8. We can vote against this and stop this tax.”
Roads and bridges maintained by the city and county and in need of repair are listed on the For Our Roads Now committee website and on promotional materials the committee has distributed, but Cowan said the sales tax proposal lack of precision.
“I want to see a list of the project’s work to do,” he told the group. “They have a list of roads in alphabetical order, but let’s have a list of their priority.”
Several of the campaigners said they would be more supportive of the proposal if it came to voters in a primary or general election. Citing data from the Arkansas Center for Economic Research, they said more than three-quarters of local sales tax elections in the state have been held in a special election. The percentage drops to 57% in a primary election and 44% in a general election.
Less than 12% of the county’s more than 60,000 registered voters cast ballots in the June 2016 special election that reauthorized the sales tax to secure $54.6 million in road bonds. The measure went from 4,601 to 2,637.
“Is it democratic for 10% of the people to vote to tax 100% of the people? GGGG leader Bob Driggers asked the group.
The group said the February date was set to engender a low turnout. It also comes at a time when voters are feeling the pinch of price increases not seen since the early 1980s, the group said.
“Inflation is at its highest level in 40 years,” Cowan told the group. “In the opinion of many people, now is not the time. It is time to give the people a break. Our state motto is Regnant Populous. It means the people rule. They don’t talk to us. I encourage you to talk to everyone you can and let them know by February 8.”
The Little Rock chapter of Americans for Prosperity is also participating in the counter-advocacy campaign. It helped defeat the Rebuild the Rock sales tax proposal that Little Rock voters rejected in September.