Orange County Democratic leaders had expected this past Monday's monthly meeting to be heated, and they weren't disappointed. It was, after all, the contentious evening at which party activists would vote whether or not to endorse the school board's Sept. 10 half-cent sales tax referendum [A few strings a-taxed, June 13].
Five years ago, Democrats wholeheartedly backed a penny sales-tax proposal designed to help build roads and schools. It failed because voters didn't trust the school board to spend their money wisely. But this time around the Democrats were tepid. It wasn't just the trust issue. It was also a matter of anger that the board had coupled the sales tax with a property-tax rollback benefiting large landowners like Disney, Universal and the Orlando Sentinel, which was perhaps the strongest proponent of including the rollback in the referendum.
Over the sales tax's 13-year life, the property-tax reduction will cost the school board $264 million -- assuming the county's property values stay the same, which they won't. A better estimate is that the school board will give away $300 million to $400 million, all in an effort to convince voters to back $2.7 billion in new taxes for 136 much-needed school-construction projects.
The regressive nature of the sales tax and the property-tax reduction butted heads with the Democratic ideal of economic justice, but it wasn't enough to kill support for a tax everyone in the Virginia Avenue union hall agreed was necessary.
After a 45-minute squabble during which school board Chairman Susan Arkin admitted that she was "boxed in" to agreeing to the property-tax rollback, the Democrats overwhelmingly pledged their support for the tax, warts and all. The problem, they realized, was that they had let conservative groups and landowners dominate the sales-tax debate so far, and like the school board, they were stuck.
"We, as the Democratic Party, have got to stand up for our side when it comes to crafting these ideas," party leader Doug Head admonished at the meeting's end. "It should not be necessary for us to give up what we cherish to get what we support."
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