It’s pretty safe to argue that proponents of raising League City’s sales tax rate by a quarter-cent to generate revenue for economic development need a new message to sell the idea.
It’s an understatement to say the voters who would judge the increase through a referendum have demonstrated opposition.
Attempts to pass the increase failed in 1994, 1997, 2007 and 2015, and they failed fairly decisively — in 1994, 59 percent of voters said no; in 1997, 62 percent opposed it; in 2007, 57.6 percent rejected it; and in 2015, 53 percent of voters did so.
One way to look at those numbers is that the pro-increase bloc picked up 9 percentage points in 10 or so years. Another way is that the measure failed five times in about 10 years. If this were the record of a candidate seeking public office, he might find financial backers hard to come by, despite the narrowing spread.
Mayor Pat Hallisey argues the 2015 proposition failed because Mark Rohr, who was city manager at the time, didn’t explain it well. That theory can’t account for the bigger losses in the years before, of course.
What might explain them, however, is a strong, ideologically driven current against government, and especially against taxes, that was running through League City during at least some of those years.
It’s the current that swept tea party sympathizers into local office and had the city council for a while deliberating broad cultural issues — immigration, sexual rights and the like — about as often as it deliberated about streets, drainage and zoning.
How strong is that current today? Who knows. We took Clear Creek ISD’s 2017 bond issue, which was highly successful (63 percent for, 36 against), despite well organized opposition, as evidence the anti-tax fervor had ebbed. We’ve been wrong before, however.
Proponents of the increase — which would bump the League City sales tax rate to 8.25 percent from 8 percent — should just assume Hallisey’s assessment is correct and the measure failed in 2015 because the sales pitch was weak.
What this effort may need is some hard specificity — what exactly would the city and others, such as an economic development corporation, do with the money raised through this added tax?
If the answer is just to pool money to offer incentives to companies that might move to League City, then this proposal may be headed toward a familiar fate, and deservedly so.
There’s some indication the current is running against the old incentive-based strategies of economic development, just as it’s running against the no-taxes-ever ideology.
League City’s own experience in courting Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters may be instructive. The company didn’t reject League City because its incentive package wasn’t lucrative enough, but because it lacked public services the company considers essential to the quality of life its employees expect.
Good questions for those advocating for the tax increase are these: With the tax, what public services and infrastructure would the city have in five or 10 years that it doesn’t have now?
If that answer includes projects that would enhance the quality of life for residents and the ability of local businesses to compete and prosper, then it might have a plan that voters should support.
If not, if the plan is simply to underwrite new businesses sometimes at the competitive expense of those that have been around paying taxes all along, then that’s going to be a harder sell.
• Michael A. Smith