On the Ballot

Stephanie Grace: Voters sent LaToya Cantrell a clear message on library tax. She should listen.

By Stephanie Grace

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

December 9, 2020

The voters in Orleans Parish spoke quite clearly Saturday when they rejected three millage proposals that Mayor LaToya Cantrell strongly pushed.

I suspect the mayor isn’t hearing what they’re saying, at least not yet.

There were plenty of complaints about how Cantrell pitched the complicated package to extend and reallocate tax money that expires at the end of the year, but the loudest one was that voters didn’t want to see the city library budget cut 40% for the next 20 years. So instead, Cantrell is basically saying that it will drop 50% once the current millage expires.

“There are no current plans to go back to voters with additional millage initiatives in 2021,” spokesman Beau Tidwell said after the propositions failed. If that holds, it would mean the current taxes would simply fall off the books at year’s end, and instead of the libraries taking a huge hit, they would take a huger one.

Clearly that wasn’t the goal of most people who campaigned against the proposal — including at least one library board member and the fundraising group Friends of the New Orleans Public Libraries. Their message was that the library system is a vital community asset, one that serves children and adults in need and that has risen to address challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, including the digital divide. Their bottom line is that the library budget shouldn’t be slashed, not that it should be slashed even more.

How we got to this point is confusing, so let’s take a minute to review.

Cantrell’s proposal called for replacing five expiring taxes with three new ones. The millage rate would have been the same, so there wouldn’t have been a tax increase, but the money would have been spent differently. In particular, the library tax would have dropped 1.593 mills, with some of the already drastically-reduced revenue siphoned off to pay for another worthy cause, early childhood education. And more money would have gone to infrastructure and maintenance, housing, and economic development.

The administration’s pitch was basically that the libraries aren’t spending the money they have, which is somewhat true but also sort of misleading. The system collected extra money in the years immediately following passage of a different millage in 2015, but has started to put it to use. And Cantrell’s argument that services wouldn’t be affected by the huge cut over the next two decades just didn’t pass the smell test.

And that was only one part of what turned into a messaging mess. The administration did a poor job of explaining why the cuts would hit the 2020 budget when the existing taxes will be collected for another year. Just days before the election, Cantrell went so far as to say that currently planned furloughs would morph into layoffs if voters rejected the proposals, which sure sounded like a threat even though she insisted it wasn’t.

At times the mayor linked the questions to a tax cut. The cut is due to another tax that’s scheduled to end, and it has nothing to do with the millage questions.

A PAC mailer in support of the Cantrell millages pulled a quotation from the Bureau of Governmental Research supporting early childhood investment, and used it to falsely suggest that the group supported the mayor’s propositions. Like many pro-library activists, BGR opposed the package and urged the mayor to come up with a better one.

And the suggestion that the cost of expanding early childhood slots should be borne by libraries clearly rankled many who support both causes, particularly when much of the money the libraries would lose would have gone elsewhere.

From the start, it seemed as if Cantrell modeled the proposal on her earlier, successful drive to reallocate some tax dollars from the Audubon Commission to City Park, the parks and parkways department and the recreation commission. But that came after voters had rejected a millage extension for Audubon, which many felt was getting more than its fair share. This proposal comes five years after voters made their love for libraries clear by passing the separate millage supporting them.

Cantrell should read Saturday’s vote as a reinforcement of that message. Rather than accepting a false choice between two terrible options, voters essentially invited Cantrell to come up with a third, more acceptable plan.

Less than a year from now, Cantrell will stand for reelection. This seems like a pretty good time for her to take voters’ message to heart rather than just dig in her heels.

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