Is the proposed downtown Columbia CID tax “taxation without representation”?

In a email to me about the proposed new 1/2 cent sales tax increase in downtown Columbia, attorney Skip Walther noted:

The sales tax would be an increase, but it would be paid by residents and by visitors who do not reside in Columbia.

Let’s examine this process. The number of registered voters downtown who can vote on this proposition is 113 according to the voter list I obtained from Wendy Noren’s office. I am aware that registered voters who wish to change their registration to downtown may also vote on this issue, but that number is sure to be small. Moreover, of the 113 eligible voters who can cast a ballot, I am personally aware that at least 20 of these voters have moved and no longer reside in Columbia. We can say there is a functional voter pool in for this ballot measure that is less than 100%, and that a municipal mail-in ballot election will see very few people actually turn in a ballot.

In other words, for a majority that cannot be over 60 people, a 1/2 sales tax increase could pass in downtown Columbia that will take an estimated $300,000 out of the local economy. Note very carefully what Skip says; he acknowledges that both residents (who get to vote) will pay this tax along with people from outside Columbia (who don’t get to vote).

I don’t like this. The Community Improvement District spent $4,000 with Progressive Political Partners to run the campaign for this tax (Full disclosure: I was paid by PPP for opposition research in the 2010 cycle). It doesn’t seem quite fair that a vote of less than 60 people will affect anyone who lives in or visits Columbia and transacts business downtown; it feels like the CID is trying to take advantage of a specially created voting district where only a very few people can vote to ram their agenda through.

If this vote had happened at the ward level or the city level during a regular municipal campaign, a much larger number of people would be able to vote on a tax that affects consumers both inside and outside of Columbia. That would be fair. That would be a tax that has been vetted through an appropriate democratic process, and I would accept the result as legitimate.

But I don’t think it’s legitimate to game the system in the way the CID appears to be doing, which is taxation without sufficient representation. This tax should be held to a vote of a larger population, and we shouldn’t let specially created government agencies try to enact their agenda through political gamesmanship.

Taxation without representation is a core issue for Americans since the Revolution. In a time of economic stress, where ordinary citizens are struggling to pay rent, keep food on the table, and just get by, the efforts of government agencies to raise taxes without sufficient justification or democratic choice serves as a lightning rod to the people who are most disaffected and marginalized. Do we want to live in a society where we risk the further fragmentation of our polity? We have already seen a tremendous amount of anger expressed (somewhat incoherently) by the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements. Do we need to give people a reason to further distrust government and advocate for radical changes in a process that is filled with violence and incivility?

I think not.


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