In 2005, before he asked the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council to approve placing his ambitious Green Light road improvements plan on the ballot, Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden advanced his ideas with months of public meetings seeking input from voters. His outreach also included lengthy and extensive feedback from council members on the proposal. That engagement paid off, with the Metro Council sending a plan to voters that ultimately won their approval by a 2-to-1 margin. Holden deserves a lot of credit for his hard work in selling his Green Light plan to parish residents.
But we’re concerned that the mayor hasn’t done nearly as much to engage the public or the Metro Council in the brief lead-up to his latest tax proposal. For an ambitious new tax plan lasting a quarter of a century and costing hundreds of millions of dollars, Holden has given the Metro Council a week to think about the plan’s merits.
That’s bad public policy, and we hope council members vote not to put Holden’s tax plan on the May 2 ballot. More time is needed to consider the costs and benefits of the plan before it’s sent to voters.
Last Wednesday, the mayor unveiled a proposed ¼-cent sales tax that would last 25 years and generate $335 million to fund several public safety capital projects, including a new parish prison and juvenile services facility, new mental health facility, as well as a new annex for the district attorney and public defender staff. Proceeds from the tax also would fund renovations of the former Woman’s Hospital site on Airline Highway that the city-parish is using as a new police headquarters.
The proposed sales tax would only fund construction costs. Operations and maintenance would be covered by two proposed property taxes: a 1.5-mill levy to run the new prison and a 0.5-mill tax to operate the mental health center.
The mayor’s tax proposal addresses serious public safety needs, and we don’t disagree with the suggestion that new taxes might be needed to fund these initiatives. Because these challenges are so important, voters deserve the best possible plan to tackle them.
That should include public forums to get community input and sustained public discussions with the Metro Council before a plan is finalized.
Instead, Holden released his plan last Wednesday, and he’s now asking Metro Council members to vote today — a mere week later — to place it on the May ballot.
By fast-tracking Holden’s plan to the ballot box, officials risk dooming it to defeat, wasting the expense of an election — and impairing the credibility of any similar proposals in the future.
History underscores the need for building greater consensus before sending such tax plans to voters. Holden has failed three times to pass tax plans for capital improvements. One proposal was rejected by the Metro Council amid complaints that Holden had dropped the plan on their desks at the last minute.
In giving council members only days to consider his new plan before sending it to voters, the mayor is clearly signaling that he hasn’t learned his lesson.
Taxpayers deserve better. We urge officials to scrap plans for a May election on this proposal, then do the necessary groundwork to advance the best proposal possible.