Unless a court decides otherwise, so will the votersNot Davidson County’s Electoral Commission on Thursday evening passed a Metro-backed option to vote on July 27 against the property tax increase proposal.
Commissioners, who voted 3-2 on Monday for a July referendum on efforts to reverse the Nashville property tax hike, will seek a judicial opinion on whether a Metro-backed move could take place on the same ballot.
The alternative approved by the Council, which would offset the initiative to increase taxes, is now in the hands of the court after a 3-2 vote by the election commissioners based on the party-political model. The Commission will seek a judicial opinion on the legality of the proposal and urge the Metro Council to revise it in the meantime.
The anti-property tax proposal, endorsed by Good Government Group 4, aims to roll the Nashville property tax rate back to 2019 levels – before the tax rate rose 34% last year. It would require voter approval if the annual increase exceeds 3%, and it would limit Metro’s power over public land transfers and recall elections.
With the Metro proposal, the status quo was to be maintained. Regarding the 4 Good Government petition, which is flawed and costly to the city, At-Large Council member Bob Mendes argued Monday that the council-backed deal will “undo” the damage caused by petitioners .
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Jim Blumstein, a professor at Vanderbilt University who was recently hired as legal advisor to the commission, advised against approving the Metro-backed proposal on Thursday. He believes the proposal will bring several amendments into one package, which would be “problematic” and “confusing” for voters.
“When you put all of these proposals together,” he said, “it blurs the notion of political accountability because voters cannot vote for every single proposal.”
The likely defeat of the Metro proposal on Thursday came after city officials and a coalition of corporations sued the commission over its Monday ruling, sparking uncertainty about the fate of the July referendum.
However, in the face of the legal battle, Republican commissioners seem steadfast.
Commission chairman Jim DeLanis, a Republican recently called back to his seat, voted with a Republican majority against the proposal. Arguing the language is confusing and suggested taking the matter to court.
“I don’t know what that thing is saying, and I don’t think we can expect a voter who doesn’t have 40 years of lawyer experience to understand it better than I do,” he said.
However, Mendes believes it is a tactical move by the Republican majority to effectively kill the proposal.
“It’s a pre-baked political theater that is apparently intended to satisfy the ambitions of a small percentage of the county,” he said Thursday evening. “You could get away with it tonight, but we see you, we see what you do, and it won’t stand.”
Blumstein: Metro proposal “misleading” and out of date
The numerous sections contained in the Metro-backed proposal could be “misleading” to voters, Blumstein said. Putting the initiative on the same ballot with the tax hike proposals further complicates voters’ problems, he said.
“Significantly, with competing proposals, it is important that voters be able to make apple-to-apple, orange-to-orange comparisons,” he said.
He said there doesn’t seem to be a need for the metro alternative. Voters who support the status quo could simply vote against the referendum against tax hikes, he said.
Blumstein recommended three options. The commission could start an informal conversation with the Metro government and recommend changes to the proposal, he said. The Commissioners could also formally reject the resolution and ask the Council to submit the components as separate subjects. The third option is to take Metro to court, which would create a “controversial” relationship.
But DeLanis insisted that the best place to see what’s on the referendum is in court.
“We’re already in court,” said DeLanis. “With issues like this, this is the best chance we have.”
Both Blumstein and DeLanis said the Metro proposal faced the same problem as the Good Government petition last year. The attempt failed last year because several amendments had been combined.
Commissioner Tricia Herzfeld, a Democrat, denied Blumstein’s argument. The professor assumed the referendum against tax hikes would have six separate questions on the ballot, she said, but the same assumption should be applied to Metro’s proposal as well.
“It seems we are applying an apple standard to apples and an orange standard to the other apples,” she said.
Mendes: The Commission could invite another lawsuit
Mendes told The Tennessean that the commission’s decision against the Metro proposal could trigger another lawsuit by the city.
The commission has a duty to put the issue on the ballot.
In a letter to the Commission on Thursday, Metro Law Director Bob Cooper quoted the language of the Metro Charter, which requires the Commission to hold a referendum on Council-approved resolutions.
According to the Metro Charter, the city has to present a decision to the commission 80 days before the scheduled election date – which it did. Under state law, the electoral commission must schedule an election for approved referendums within 75 to 90 days of approval.
However, Thursday’s vote could effectively have killed the resolution unless the court determines otherwise.
The resolution, supported by the Council, was drafted to appear on the same ballot at the petitioners’ initiative. However, Thursday was the last day the Council-backed resolution could be put on the July 27 ballot.
Dueling problem campaigns likely on the way
Proponents of the tax hike referendum are preparing for a campaign to influence voters.
Tori Venable, director of Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, told The Tennessean on Wednesday that the group would launch a campaign to support the issue once it is clear the referendum will take place.
In a statement she described the increase in the property tax rate last year as “mismanagement”.
“It’s time Metro officials stopped digging on their heels and let the Nashvillians decide whether to raise their own taxes,” Venable said. “Forcing tax increases on small businesses and families trying to recover from the effects of the pandemic will not solve our underlying tax problems.”
The group, which is part of a network funded by Koch Brothers, sponsored a similar effort last year led by local attorney Jim Roberts.
Venable said she was not involved in organizing the effort this year, but the group would “engage the grassroots” ahead of the referendum. The plans include “door knocking, telephone banking, events, digital and probably” get out (to) vote “mailers,” she said in a text.
“Nobody plays a floor game like us,” she said. “Mark my words: if it comes to the vote we will win and we will win big.”
When asked whether Mayor John Cooper’s office has developed strategies to defeat the referendum, Cooper spokeswoman Andrea Fanta said on Wednesday that Cooper would support “community efforts” against the problem.
She confirmed that as a private individual to the county, the mayor will likely make a financial contribution, as he did last year, to defeat a similar referendum.
Last year, Cooper also held strategic talks with consultants, warning the initiative could result in significant cuts in the city’s services and massive layoffs.
The mayor previously said the referendum against tax hikes could paralyze the city’s operations and lead to a “self-inflicted crisis in Nashville.”
Mendes said a campaign against the referendum should focus on the impact of the property tax rate rollback, which could cost the city $ 40 million in lost revenue. That could mean unfunded initiatives in Cooper’s budget, like investing $ 50 million in raises for teachers in Nashville or funding 40 new police officers for the Southeast District.
In addition to lowering the property tax rate, the anti-tax referendum would lower the bar for a recall election, Mendes said, and could result in high sales among council mandates.
“Instead of 85,000 (signatures) in 30 days, it would take 12,000 signatures in 75 days to call me back,” he said.
Holding a referendum every time the city proposes a 3% increase in property tax or transfers of $ 5 million or more of real estate with a 20-year lease could also be costly, he said.
Reach out to Yue Stella Yu at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @bystellayu_tnsn.
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