Nov 22 2013

Nobody Won

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

But not everyone has lost either

But not everyone has lost either

Last night’s election results in the sales tax vote were surprising in the definitive margin of defeat…more than the defeat of the measure itself.

It was an issue I struggled with, much like more than one of my friends.

As a long time advocate of Pre-K, and someone who actually spent over a year researching the impact it can have on the development of young children, I understand all too well the high rate of return in the long run. I knew that return wouldn’t be measured in years, but in decades. That’s really how everything should be measured…but will never be as we quest to ever shorten the time we see a return on our investment.

As a society we’ve morphed from a relatively patient people, to the policy equivalent of day traders, buying and selling for pennies of return, to Adderall junkies demanding we be fed pills to fuel our “more better faster cheaper regardless of just how crappy the product ultimately is” lifestyle.

But that’s another point entirely.

The failure of the measure doesn’t have to be the failure of the cause. The slogan didn’t say: “Our Only chance to advance”.

It was a chance. One we as a city chose not to take. Arguing the wisdom of that vote is walking backwards. But in looking backwards, perhaps there are some lessons to be learned for the next time. There can be a next time if we want it.

Reservations

The Poor Pay More

The Poor Pay More

Tennessee ranks as the 6th most regressive tax structure in the US according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

This is not entirely the City Council’s fault. The state government plays a much bigger role in the way we collect revenue than the City ever could. But because the poor pay a disproportionately larger percentage of their income in taxes than wealthier Tennesseans, there’s ample reason to be leery of a sales tax to pay for something that will largely benefit the poor.

This was my secondary objection to the measure, though I did vote yes on it.

My primary objection was that it was a sales tax increase to pay for Pre-K and mask a property tax decrease, that would amount to basically nothing for middle income people ($20/year).

I feel confident that if all the money were benchmarked for Pre-K, and certain elements were better crafted, the issue would have passed.

Rhetorical Whimpers

Last night, after the election result was certain, I heard several elected officials who lent a good deal of political capital to the cause say several things. To paraphrase the most oft repeated refrains:

1. People don’t want to pay more taxes.

2. People don’t trust government.

3. Things have to change.

There are some important things to note here:

1. None of them said people don’t want Pre-K.

2. Isn’t it the height of irony that an elected government official would acknowledge publicly that the people, who elected them, don’t trust the government they were elected to play a deciding factor in?

3. Taking these first two into account, it seems clear that things do have to change, though perhaps not in the way said elected officials intended.

Speaks volumes in my book.

Systemic Failures

But there are other issues as well.

The 8 member, unelected board that would administer the funds made folks queasy. Memphis has more than its fair share of unelected boards that handle city money in ways that make even the least observant question the rationale. I’m not sure many people have the stomach for another.

Another thing that added to the discomfort is the charge that the Pre-K system in Memphis already has empty seats…one that, to my knowledge at least, was never verified. Because the City can no more make Pre-K compulsory than levy an income tax, the practical considerations here may have given some voters pause.

Finally, the silver bullet nature of the campaign…

Pre-K isn’t going to solve long-term unemployment, or generational poverty…at least not in any term that I will live to see.

Pre-K isn’t going to train people for the hundreds of jobs at Electrolux that remain unfilled due to a low-skill workforce.

It isn’t going to help get people to those jobs if they are qualified to do them.

It isn’t going to hold slum-lords accountable when they allow their property to deteriorate so they pay lower property taxes, all while charging the same amount of rent to their tenants.

Pre-K doesn’t do anything for the generations that came before this one, that need just as much, if not more help than their kids, so they can take part in making a better future for their community.

It doesn’t work to fill the gaps in skills that people desperately need to get out of the grip of poverty level minimum wage jobs.

It doesn’t give a second chance to the folks who may have made a bad decision or two in their lives, and are now cast aside as economic untouchables with little or no opportunity.

It may help increase educational attainment, and by extension, help decrease crime and poverty, but lets be honest, that’s no less than 20 years out.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to have universal Pre-K here in Memphis, it just means we have to be honest with ourselves.

This ain’t the walk off home run that it was billed to be.

Hail to the winners…who achieved nothing

The winners…if there is such an animal in this situation, have a heavy load to carry, though I am skeptical that they will.

I partially agree with Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland when they said, the onus is on the opponents to bring something forward to help make this happen, though I think they give their opposition too much credit. The scant voices who fought this on a wing and a prayer aren’t why it failed. They didn’t help get it passed, but they don’t deserve credit for squashing it either.

The solution, that has been said by some of the anti’s is use the $57m the city owes the schools to pay for it. That assumes a lot…most importantly, that the schools are ok with the city spending their money without their permission. It is also a very short-term plan for funding Pre-K. $57m would last for about two years, if that.

To the anti-salestaxers I ask, “What’s your plan?” How should the city begin the work of addressing the long-term inequities that have brought us generational poverty, low educational attainment, and an opportunity vacuum for those whose circumstances are beyond their control?

I ask this, with the implied understanding that the City, on its own, cannot address all these issues…the State and Federal government have more than their fair share of the blame in complicating…if not exacerbating these circumstances.

I ask this because simply acting as a foil to political rivals isn’t leadership any more than 40-odd meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare is leadership. Opposition without a workable alternative is nothing more than a cynical political ploy.

I’m actually looking forward to it, because perhaps the ideas will net something this initiative never did, which is community input on the final product. Maybe this alternative will actually look, sound, and feel more like the people it seeks to serve. And maybe, just maybe it will be successful at the polls.

Until then, the ball is in your court.

How Bad Do You Want It?

The real thing I’m interested in is seeing just how quickly the next group picks up the ball and runs with it on this and related issues. Something’s gotta give.

We’ve got too much of a whole lot of things that keep us down and a whole lot more of the “it can’t be done” attitude that I fear this result will only fuel.

We can do more, we just have to start. Its that simple. We can start anywhere…housing, workforce training, education…seriously, we’ve got more than enough people that need help in these and more areas that finding a place to start isn’t the issue…starting is.

It all comes down to how bad we want it, and the next few weeks will go a long way to answering that question.

How bad do you want it? I hope the answer to that question isn’t “Not bad enough”.