Lingering Feelings Over A Long-Ago Vote May Have Hurt The Sales Tax Proposal

Nov 6, 2019

If you want to find a reason why Charlotte-Mecklenburg voters rejected a sales tax increase for the arts, parks and education, you’ve got lots of choices.

Some folks vote against any new tax as a reflex. Others don’t want tax money going toward the arts, which they see as a private enterprise. Some others might have seen this particular proposal as too vague. And still others might have thought the city and county have more pressing needs, especially with the sales tax close to its cap.

But I’d like to mention the possibility of a ghost from Charlotte’s recent past – one that, I think, still haunts us today.

Back in 2001, voters turned down a referendum to build a new arena uptown. This was when the Charlotte Hornets were out on Tyvola Road and were sort of a zombie franchise – people had soured on the owner, George Shinn, who wanted a new arena AND threatened to move the team AND had been involved in a sex scandal. Nobody wanted to spend a dime on helping that dude out.

But 17 months later, Charlotte City Council approved a deal to build the arena anyway, with a new NBA team – the Bobcats – as its anchor. I think by now, most people in Charlotte think the arena ended up being a good idea. The Bobcats are now the Hornets again, and the arena fills up with concerts, and the Democratic National Convention came, and the Republican National Convention is coming.

But at the time, back in 2002, many Charlotteans saw that City Council vote as a betrayal. The voters had spoken, but the city went ahead and did what it wanted. I still hear people talk about that arena vote nearly 20 years later as a sign that local government can’t be trusted.

There’s been a lot of churn in our population since then. But I think that 2002 vote created a bigger hill to climb for anyone who wants local voters to pay for something beyond the essentials.

None of that is the fault of the Arts and Science Council, or the Foundation for the Carolinas, or anybody else who backed the increase in the sales tax. But I do think it requires them to make a more airtight case that somebody will be a good steward of that public money, and won’t let it be spent on something the public doesn’t want.

Trust is hard to build and easy to lose. I think local government in Charlotte is still trying to earn back the trust it lost nearly 20 years ago. That probably wasn’t the deciding factor in Tuesday’s defeat. But even in a place as transitory as Charlotte, some folks have long memories.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.