The people of Orleans and Jefferson have spoken — or at least a handful of them have — so it’s worth looking at what lessons can be drawn from Saturday’s successful millage elections, both of which could be considered do-overs from prior failures.
One is that, from a numbers perspective, seemingly random tax elections on days when no major offices are on the ballot don’t exactly bring people out.
This isn’t a new issue, but it’s an ongoing concern in terms of both participation and cost.
Jefferson Parish voters on Saturday resoundingly approved a new 7.9-mill, 10-year property tax to fund raises for teachers and other employees.
In Orleans, just 9.4 percent of eligible voters showed up to voice their opinion on whether expiring taxes to support the Audubon Commission and the city’s parks and parkways department and recreation commission should be extended and redistributed. The new formula calls for significantly less for Audubon, more for parks and parkways and recreation and a new allotment for City Park. The tax rate going forward for 20 years, from 2021 to 2040, will not increase. The proposal had vocal support from Mayor LaToya Cantrell and many civic leaders, and passed 76-24 percent. Turnout was noticeably higher, but still low, closer to Audubon and City Parks, the two large facilities linked to the millage.
The election came just over a month after another tax question appeared on the ballot, this one an increase to fund programs for the elderly. That proposed tax increase, which failed, had support from the City Council but faced opposition from Cantrell, and just 6.8 percent of voters showed up.
In Jefferson, 11.6 percent of voters turned out to consider a pair of millages, the higher-profile of which will go toward raising public school teacher pay. Proponents — led by the school board and also including a wide range of civic and business leaders — won big there too. Seventy-two percent of voters who showed up voiced support for a new 10-year tax, the same percentage that backed a renewal for forensic medical facilities.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell will mark her first year in office next week, which means that local media is busy evaluating what and how she did.
The scheduling of these votes was not random, of course. There’s a reason that people pushing proposals such as these aim for low-turnout elections, and it’s that they’re more likely be able to turn out their own supporters without worrying about selling their proposals to a larger, and likely more skeptical, electorate. It may not sit well in terms of a democracy or efficiency, but it makes sense strategically. It sure seemed to on Saturday.
That doesn’t mean that either proposal was an automatic sell, which leads to a second notable takeaway. Voters made proponents of both taxes work for it.
The New Orleans millage proposal followed a 2014 vote that would have increased the property tax for the Audubon Commission and extended it 50 years. Voters rightly saw that as an arrogant money grab from a well-heeled institution, and soundly rejected it. The loss set the stage for a series of concessions from Audubon, from sharing the wealth to doing more to give lower-income residents of New Orleans access to its famed but pricey facilities. It wasn’t enough for some voters, who urged a “no” vote on social media, but it satisfied most who showed up.
The Jefferson Parish teacher pay tax followed a losing proposal two years ago, which drew criticism from outside groups and came during a tumultuous period on the Jefferson Parish School Board. This time the proposed tax increase came in a bit lower and was more targeted to bolster the pay of new teachers who’ve been bolting for higher-paying jurisdictions, and to retain teachers in harder-to-fill jobs. The prior request had called for across-the-board raises.
So in both parishes, voters sent the message that their support had to be earned, which is good news for fans of democracy. A little humility can go a long way.
The bad news is that the cynical ploy of staging these elections apart from high-turnout contests for offices such as governor, legislator and parish level offices, all of which will be on the October ballot, was basically vindicated. So expect more elections like this in the future, not fewer.