In Win Gruening’s recent My Turn, “It’s not 2008 anymore,” he suggested that when we vote on whether to renew the 1 percent sales tax we should perhaps abandon the idea of a “Botelho Bundle” and instead empower the voters to decide exactly which projects should be funded with sales tax proceeds. Rather than place a single take-it-or-leave-it question on our fall ballot, the Assembly should separate the question; first, whether to renew the 1 percent sales tax, and second, for what specific projects or programs should sales tax revenues be expended.
After all, we get to vote to either approve or reject General Obligation bonds for specific projects. Why should it be any different for sales tax projects?
Currently there is a list of 27 requests totaling about $123 million competing for an estimated $47 million in 1 percent sales tax funding. That list includes a request to expand local government by creating a new operating program as well as grant funds to a non-CBJ entity. Among the requested deferred maintenance projects is a request to spend money on the downtown pool, despite the fact that many in the community have suggested that the pool should be closed.
I am not suggesting that the Assembly simply pass the buck and list all 27 projects on the ballot. The Assembly should still narrow the list to those uses that it recommends within the projected funding, exactly as they do now. But why not allow the voters to either ratify or reject the Assembly’s individual recommendations?
Why is this good public policy? If a project or use can’t garner sufficient voter support based on its own merits then it should not be funded simply because other projects that can stand on their merits have been bundled into an all or nothing vote. Voters would no longer be held hostage to fund unnecessary or unwise projects. In addition, supporters of individual projects or uses would find it important to educate the voters of the project’s value.
So how would this work? If the ballot issue to renew the 1 percent sales tax doesn’t pass, then the individual project questions become moot. But if the renewal question passes then the Assembly could only spend the 1 percent sales tax revenues on those projects that also pass muster with the voters.
If the voters declined to approve $12 million of $47 million in projects on the Assembly’s 2017 recommended list, what would happen to the $12 million? The tax would still be collected and the Assembly would propose another $12 million in projects for the voters to either approve or reject at the next election.
What would prevent the Assembly from repeatedly placing a rejected project on the ballot until it passed? The Assembly would only get to place a specific project on two consecutive ballots. If the voters rejected the use two times in a row, the project could not appear on the ballot for another five years.
The best approach to empower Juneau voters would be to amend section 9.17 of the CBJ Charter, a question that the Assembly should place on the ballot this fall as well. But until the voters could approve that charter amendment, the Assembly should by ordinance adopt this approach for the October 2017 1 percent sales tax ballot question.
We can and must take a wiser approach to our use of sales tax revenues. In the near term we are facing a decline in overall government funding. We cannot afford to spend precious funds on projects that the majority of our citizens do not support. Empowering the voters this way would be a good step toward more responsible management of our 1 percent sales tax revenues and might even increase voter turnout.
• Tom Williams is a 40-year resident of Juneau, and has previously served on both the City and Borough of Juneau Airport and Harbor Boards.