Citizens of North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County will have a chance this November to overturn a special sales tax that funds mass transit.
Opponents of the half-cent sales tax levy, which generates about $70 million annually, gathered 48,669 valid signatures on petitions calling for a referendum to repeal the tax, enough to qualify the measure for the November ballot, according to the Mecklenburg Board of Elections.
Mecklenburg County includes the city of Charlotte. About 58 percent of Charlotte-area voters approved the tax in 1998, but delays and cost overruns in building Charlotte’s first light-rail line, which began construction in 2005, and plans by local officials to build additional light-rail lines, have turned thousands of citizens against the plans.
“They’ve already started work on the light-rail line. A repeal would be a serious setback, but I hope they do kill the half-cent sales tax,” said Richard Wagner, editor of Carolina Journal, which covers local and state government in North Carolina.
The initial project budget in 2000 was $227 million. Estimates have ballooned to $450 million, and the work remains unfinished.
“It looks like people have reached the boiling point,” Wagner said. “They’re beginning to see this light rail is a boondoggle. People out here are having to pay for coliseums and kayak parks and all kinds of stuff, and they’re tired of these government boondoggles. They see taxes going up and less money to spend on themselves.”
City officials say a repeal of the half-cent sales tax would also hurt the city’s bus service, which receives more than half the transit tax revenue, and result in higher local property taxes.
City and county officials, the local chamber of commerce, and other civic organizations defend the half-cent tax.
At a June 8 news conference, Charlotte City Council member Pat Mumford, a Republican, announced he has founded an as-yet unnamed group to defeat the repeal effort and preserve the tax.
Mumford said his group would start “immediately” to defend the transit tax and would raise “at least six figures” for its campaign.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican who has joined Mumford in trying to preserve the tax, said delays and cost overruns are to be expected on government projects.
“We would have to stop expansion of any road in Charlotte” because of cost overruns, McCrory said at the news conference.
Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Wendell Cox said, “This tax should be put up for a repeal vote because of the massively failed promises.
“The mere fact that citizens have gotten this on the ballot is a great step forward,” Cox added. “Public officials should be held at least to the same standard the law requires of real estate agents and used car salesmen.”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow for The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.