Tax votes split 4-4

With a competitive Democratic presidential primary and a Republican incumbent, eight counties saw an opportunity to get voter approval for a sales tax referendum. This was the first presidential primary year with more an incumbent Republican and an open field for Democrats and the results for sales tax votes reflected that, as 4 of the 8 ballot measures passed.

Voters approved just 2 of 20 sales tax referenda in the 2008 presidential primary and none of the five in 2016. No counties tried in 2012 when Democrat Barack Obama was the incumbent president. Presidential primaries in 2008 and 2016 had competitive races on both the Democratic and Republican tickets and only 2 of the 27 sales taxes on the ballot those years passed.

Only half of this year’s tax votes were listed by NC Association of County Commissioners (Chatham, Forsyth, and Madison passed, Wayne lost). Local resident alerted John Locke Foundation to another (Alamance failed) and additional searching found a sixth (Stokes failed), but discovered two (Bertie passed, Washington failed) only upon seeing results.

  • Bertie County commissioners promised the $175,000 would go to teacher pay. Pointed out neighboring Hertford, Halifax, Martin, Pitt, and Edgecombe counties had already passed it. The county generates $11.1 million, or $128,000 per penny, on a property tax rate of 86.5 cents up from 83 cents in 2018-19. The sales tax increase is equivalent to 1.56 cents of property tax and brings the total tax increase over $400,000 this year, about half of what the county manager sought in his proposed budget for FY2019-20. The county is also spending $1.7 million from its cash balance. This was county commissioners’ fifth attempt to get a sales tax passed and they pulled it off with 52 percent in support.
  • Washington County provided no information on its website about the proposed sales tax, how much it would raise, or how commissioners would use the money. The county collects $7.9 million on tax rate of 85.5 cents or $92,000 per penny. For a third time, voters rejected the sales tax with 51 percent against.
  • In Alamance County, commissioners were not clear what they would do with the money, though considered repealing a portion of the county’s recent 8-cent property tax increase. Voters rejected a sales tax hike for the fourth time with 59 percent voting against.
  • Chatham County voters approved a $1.6 million sales tax hike, with 51 percent in support, to cover affordable housing and other projects.
  • After 68 percent of voters rejected a sales tax in November 2018, Forsyth County commissioners went ahead with their plans for new construction and higher taxes anyway, then came back again to seek a $14 million sales tax hike. This time it passed with 60 percent in favor
  • Madison County’s high school football stadium will get its renovations if commissioners stick to their word on how to use the $290,000 in new sales tax revenue 63 percent of voters approved.
  • In Stokes County, 60 percent of voters came out against the proposed $1 million sales tax hike. This was the second time commissioners put a sales tax hike on the ballot.
  • Wayne County commissioners failed in their third try to get a $2.6 million tax hike. Despite promising to use it for a new elementary school and other education-related projects, 51 percent of voters said no.
  • Voters approved new taxes for 11 fire districts in Duplin County, but again rejected a supplemental property tax for Halifax-Weldon schools. Bonds for community colleges and schools passed in Rowan and Iredell counties.

County commissioners should not be able to pick low turnout elections or elections with a particular partisan composition for taxes or debt. Future elections should be held only with statewide general elections, when the greatest proportion of voters participate. This would also provide two full years after voters reject a sales tax before they can be asked again.

Joseph Coletti / Senior Fellow

Joe Coletti is a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation focused on fiscal policy issues. He previously headed the North Carolina Government Efficiency and Reform initiativ...

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