Taxing Questions 

As indicated in this week's election preview, the ballot that confronts local voters in this election season contains a number of initiatives for voters to decide on, rather than their elected representatives. There are two of special relevance to

our readers — a one-cent increase in the gasoline tax for Memphis voters and a half-cent increase in the local sales tax for all residents of Shelby County.

The case for the former was originally made by its sponsor, Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Jr., who has been diligent about finding alternatives to the property tax in order to deal with budgetary needs. In this case, as Ford and numerous others have pointed out, the rather moderate incremental increase in the cost of gasoline (currently considerably north of $3 per gallon and likely to remain there for a while) could raise as much as $3 million to support MATA, the city agency which provides public transportation and has to scratch out a subsistence on city subsidies. Besides providing the revenue in a targeted, off-budget manner, the additional penny's worth on a gallon of gasoline will end up being paid not just by city residents but by pass-through motorists, giving partial satisfaction to all those citizens who have demanded a payroll tax or some other expedient whereby out-of-towners who use city facilities can help provide for their upkeep.

The case for the county sales tax increase is another matter entirely. Its sponsor, Chairman Mike Ritz of the Shelby County Commission, insists that the half-cent increase it calls for is the only realistic alternative to a hefty property tax increase as a solution to the immediate future needs of Shelby County's schools. And this is true, he says, however they are configured — whether all the schools end up within the confines of the Unified School System after a city/county school merger is completed in August 2013 or whether each of the six suburban municipalities now involved in creating their own independent school systems are ultimately allowed by the courts to do so.

By state law, half of the funds raised by the tax would be consigned to public education. Memphis mayor A C Wharton and various council members have added their support, though it came after an initial reluctance to support the tax, which served to displace from the ballot a half-cent property tax increase for city residents that would resolve more general budgetary needs. As Wharton explained his change of mind, some of the proceeds from the tax (the Unified School Board consenting) would go toward a comprehensive countywide program of pre-K education, and the city would still acquire valuable funding for other, non-school needs.

It should be said that both proposals have met with opposition from opponents of additional taxation at a time of general economic contraction. In addition, the county sales tax proposal is being resisted by adherents of the proposed municipal schools, whose already passed sales tax initiatives would be superseded in the next fiscal year. And Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell is a spokesperson for all those who believe the tax issue should be delayed until the Unified School Board has an opportunity to effect some economies.

Without advising a course of action in either instance, we hope voters carefully consider all the arguments and alternatives.


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