Louisville Residents Reject Library Tax Plan

Published January 1, 2008

There was a gubernatorial election in November in Kentucky, but local taxes dominated Louisville’s airwaves and angered taxpayers in the state’s largest city.

Despite an estimated $1 million advertising campaign and continual cheerleading by Mayor Jerry Abramson (D) and the editorial page of the city’s major newspaper, a plan to raise occupational taxes by $40 million annually for Louisville’s library system suffered a stunning defeat.

The library tax hike measure lost by a 2 to 1 margin.

Tax Hike Not Needed

“There were more ads for the library tax than for the governor’s campaign on this issue,” said Hal Heiner, a Republican metro councilman who offered a plan to fund the city’s $200 million Library Master Plan without raising taxes.

Approval of the ballot measure would have resulted in a 0.2 percent increase in the city’s occupational tax rate. (See “Foes Slug It Out Over Louisville Library Tax Proposal,” Budget & Tax News, November 2007.) Heiner’s alternative plan designates funding that will soon be available when old bond issues for capital projects are paid off.

Heiner argued the tax proposal ran counter to the spirit and purpose of the consolidation of the city and Jefferson County governments in 2002.

“Merger was sold on … more efficient government,” Heiner said. “There was a contract–to improve services without increasing the tax burden.”

‘Angry’ Electorate Acts

Heiner said polling place reports he received indicated voters were “really angry” about this issue.

“They felt deceived that the campaign never mentioned a tax, never mentioned that there was any cost. They only talked about the importance of the library in very slickly prepared ads,” Heiner said. “But when the voters really understood that it was a tax and that there was a way to improve libraries without the tax, they showed their displeasure with the campaign.”

That displeasure translated into 143,350, or 67 percent, voting “no” while only 33 percent supported the measure. The proposal mustered majority support in only 50 of the 500 voting precincts and three of the 26 Metro Council districts.

Pitchmen Fail

Voters refused to be persuaded by either the money of Humana founder David Jones Sr. or the star power of the pro-tax television advertising campaign, including an appearance by popular University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. They also did not bend to fear-mongering in the FAQ section about the tax on the library’s Web site titled, “What happens if we don’t create a public library district?”

The two sides on this issue could not have been more different–even in their election-day gatherings. Chris Thieneman, a real estate developer who served as chairman of the “Support the Libraries, Not the Tax” group, led a celebration featuring pizza and beer at a victory party inside a self-storage warehouse. Workers for the pro-tax campaign dined on a buffet at a downtown museum.

Norman Morton, an advertising executive whose career includes a stint as vice president of J. Walter Thompson U.S.A. in Chicago, quit as the library’s marketing director after library officials decided to support the tax proposal. During the campaign, Morton accused library officials of deception, including using employees who were on the clock to gather signatures for a petition to get the issue placed on the ballot.

Complaint Filed

A complaint filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance argues thousands of yard signs claiming “A Library Champion Lives Here,” handed out by pro-tax forces to ostensibly praise children for meeting reading goals, were “barely disguised political advocacy” to promote the tax.

“Once we were able to clarify the opposition’s true position, everything just fell into place,” Morton said in explaining the victory for taxpayers. “Voters felt browbeaten by elitist groups to fund the library through this tax. It appears they would rather not have the library than vote for that.”

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.