On the Ballot

(Opinion) Editorial: Defeat of Orleans Parish sheriff’s tax brings hard-earned lessons

By Staff Editorial

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

May 3, 2023

Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson’s proposal to double her office’s property tax millage didn’t just go down to defeat on April 29. Voters opposed her proposition by the largest margin in memory — 91% voted against it.

That’s more than a rejection. It’s a repudiation.

“In my 40 years of polling, I’ve never seen an initiative lose by that degree,” said pollster Silas Lee, a sociology professor at Xavier University. Lee said the shellacking leaves Hutson with a “monumental” task as she seeks to regain public confidence.

The sheriff’s main job is running the city’s long-troubled jail, which has operated under a federal consent decree since 2013. She has struggled since taking office a year ago.

UNO Political Science Professor Ed Chervenak said Hutson faces “a negative mandate” because citizens appear unwilling to provide her with the additional resources she and others say are needed to fix the jail’s many problems.

In the aftermath of the lopsided defeat, Hutson acknowledged she didn’t do enough to sell her proposal to tax-weary voters. She quietly got the proposition on a low-turnout ballot and then waited until about two weeks before Election Day to start campaigning for it.

“(Voters) want to hear the details,” Hutson said afterward. “People are really knowledgeable about how they want their tax dollars spent.”

Belatedly, she’s got that right.

The sheriff asked voters to boost her office’s property tax rate from 2.8 mills to 5.5 mills. The increase would have brought at least $12 million a year in additional revenue, which approximates the $13 million in new funding Hutson failed to secure from the New Orleans City Council last fall.

About two and a half weeks before the referendum, the council grilled Hutson for details about how she planned to spend the additional money. She outlined general areas of need — higher salaries to recruit and retain employees, additional employee training, and renovations to jail facilities — but she could not provide specifics about how she would spend the extra revenue.

Her lack of a public campaign and her failure to offer details ignited public opposition to the tax hike. The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research criticized her for not offering a clear spending plan.

Hutson’s biggest takeaway should be a lesson that more experienced elected officials already know: Don’t try to pull one over on voters. Instead, level with them. Start early, with a transparent accounting of how current revenues are spent, a full explanation of why more money is needed, and a detailed plan showing how every additional penny will be spent. Understand that voters too are strapped, and are often willing to pay for needed services but unwilling to write a blank check.

It also helps if they think you’re doing a good job.

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