story by Jamie Smith, special to The City Wire
WASHINGTON COUNTY—A quarter-cent sales tax increase that would have generated $7.5 million annually to drastically expand public transportation failed in Tuesday’s election.
Washington County voters said “no” to the tax to the tune of 13,001 (63.76 percent) to 7,391 (36.24 percent). The election results are unofficial and only represent 95 percent of the precincts, according to the Washington County Election Commission.
“We’re thrilled,” said Jeff Oland, chairman of the Washington County Tea Party, which was the driving force behind much of the opposition to the tax. “It was a monumental effort made by members of our group.”
Parties from the Advocates for Public Transit, who lobbied strongly for the proposal, could not be reached for comment after 11 p.m. Tuesday.
The issue has been fraught with controversy almost since the moment it began. Advocates for and against the measure spoken fervently at three separate Washington County Quorum Court meetings where the justices of the peace discussed whether or not to place the sales tax vote on the ballot. The Benton County Quorum Court decided to not allow the issue on the ballot in that county.
Those who were for the tax cited the expanded services that would be provided. They also originally claimed that Ozark Regional Transit, the primary beneficiary of the tax, would be losing federal dollars and needed to make up the shortfall. That was later determined to not be expected to be the case as waivers are available for a federal law that says transit entities lose operational dollars after their census numbers reach the 200,000 threshold.
Those who spoke against the tax were either opposed to more taxes or they wanted a more regional approach that included more counties and more types of public transportation, such as highways.
Controversy continued in recent weeks when recent attempt to have the issue removed from ballot failed in Washington County Circuit Court. The petition for injunction was filed May 10 and dismissed May 16.
According to records from the Arkansas Ethics Commission, only one entity filed the financial paperwork that is required of any committee formed to advocate for a ballot issue.
The Washington County Tea Party filed its Statement of Organization paperwork on April 17 and subsequently filed several reports of financial records that indicate how much money it has raised to support its efforts against the transit tax.
There were no records that the Advocates of Public Transit or anyone associated with the recent attempts to have an injunction placed against the ballot measure filed the paperwork.
Michael Lanier, chairman of the APT, said the group’s treasurer was out of the country and not available for comment. He said if the group has inadvertently failed to file the necessary paperwork that it would do so as soon as possible.
“It’s not that we have anything to hide, it was an oversight,” he said. “We are new to this.”
It was not clear Tuesday night if anyone associated with the injunction petition fit the qualifications for a committee that would be required to report their fundraising efforts to the Ethics Commission.
Arkansas Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan said any committee that raised money with the purpose of specifically advocating a position on a ballot issue must file with the Ethics Commission once they raise $500.
There are two kinds of committees, ballot and legislative. Ballot committees regard issues that were placed on the ballot by a group seeking for the issue to be placed on the ballot. Legislative issues are any ballot question that is specifically placed to the voters by a governing body. Committees must file when they organize and once they raise $500.
“A single person could be their own committee if they take their own money and reach that $500 threshold,” he said.
Sloan said any committee that organizes to raise money to advocate a specific position on any ballot issue has the responsibility to know the law and to follow requirements regarding registration and reporting.