There were fervent exchanges between the proponents of a half-cent sales tax increase and those who oppose it during a televised 60-minute debate Wednesday morning (Oct. 24) in the studio of WREG-TV Channel 3.
With the Nov. 6 election looming, the debaters were steadfast and hoping voters in Memphis and the unincorporated areas of Shelby County would accept or reject a sales tax increase that would generate an estimated $60 million, with half of that going to public education. Proponents argue that the public education funds would go to extend Pre-K, but some opponents are not convinced.
"There is a cost for voting yes and there is a cost for voting no," said City Councilman Shay Flinn, when moderators Alex Coleman and Marybeth Conley, hosts of Live at 9, asked, "Should we slow down" pursuing a tax increase? Alluding to the referendum already on the ballot, Flinn said, "The vote is in November."
Flinn, Stand for Children Executive Director Kenya Bradshaw and Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy are supporting the tax increase. City Councilman Jim Strickland, County Commissioner Heidi Shafer and outgoing unified school board member Kenneth Whalum are opposing it.
Whalum was very vocal in his opposition to a tax hike, contending that poor people likely would shoulder the burden rather than taxpayers in the upper income bracket. He asked the opposition, "Has the wheel tax been allocated as promised?"
What Whalum was referring to was the wheel tax that Shelby County passed in 1988 as a temporary measure to fund new school construction and eventually schools operating costs and debt service. Motorists now have to pay $50 annually to renew their vehicle registration.
Several local leaders, including Mayor A C Wharton Jr., civic and community organizations are supporting the tax increase. Bolstering pre-K is the motivation behind the push for a tax increase, Bradshaw pointed out. "To make sure that every child goes to school is the greatest investment we can make," she said.
"We all agree it's a regressive tax," said Strickland, asking his opponents for "a specific commitment," if funds are indeed to be used to support pre-K.
"Voting yes...we guarantee that 50 percent (of the estimated new tax revenue) will go to education," Mulroy declared.
He also responded to Strickland's point about the half-cent increase being a regressive tax for taxpayers only in Shelby County. "It captures revenue from people who come into Memphis."
Mulroy said their support of a sales tax increase was prompted primarily because of the half-cent sales tax increase that the adjoining municipalities passed in August. "Our hands were forced by the municipalities when they raised their sales tax," he said.
"The sales tax is 9.25, but the increase is so small, you spend that in gas," said Flinn, who argued that if voters reject the sales tax increase, property taxes more than likely would increase.
"We got to address the spread between our property tax rate and other tax rates," he said.
Shafer was not moved by the opposition's plan to fund early childhood education. She said, "They are hiding behind 4-year-olds just to raise taxes."
The phasing in of 2,500 preschoolers over a 5-year period is not universal pre-K, said Whalum. "We got to stop putting the burden on the backs of the people."
"Can we cut our way to where we want to be?" Marybeth Conley asked.
"We can easily cut $20-$25 million out of a $600 million budget," Strickland said.
Shafer said plenty more could be cut from the city's budget.
"If every cost-cutting measure is adopted, there will still be a deficit," said Mulroy.
Bradshaw said it is unlikely that the city can cut its way to success, returning to the premise that the half-cent tax increase is "an investment in children."