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Voters school Caddo Commission for its arrogance

When the Caddo Parish Commission decided to ask voters to lengthen term limits from three to five, it gambled with extension of the property tax for debt on capital improvements on the same ballot. On Oct. 19, it lost in the worst way possible.

Hubris has crept over the Commission in recent years, fueled by the natural gas bonanza. Pay has crept up to a level far beyond what part-timers should earn running an outfit far smaller than Shreveport or the Caddo Parish School District, courtesy of it being tied to parish employee salary increases. The large surpluses of the people’s money they socked away began to loosen their wallets differently when they found a way to give millions of dollars to a manufacturer of three-wheeled automobiles turned down by other governments. But while the roughly $50 million banked was enough from which to speculate, it wasn’t enough to scale back or eliminate the renewal of the 20-year levy projected to bring in almost $24 million over that span put in front of the voters

And perhaps because of the $22,000 annual part-time salary, under the cover of the recent charter review panel that said the question could be looked at, the move was on first to eliminate term limits, but then in the face of negative public reaction and from some commissioners, that was compromised to present voters with a charter amendment to set the number at five – demonstrating the feet of clay of the commissioners who had opposed wiping out limits entirely, for few members in the 175-year history of the parish of the Commission or its predecessor ever served more than 20 consecutive years. Substantively, it was little different from having none at all.

Also, it was a clever strategy to try to pass the measure, in light of the fact that the original 1991 vote to impose them came during statewide and parish elections. Commissioners may have thought that the proposition wording, which cited the relevant charter section but gave no indication a change was being made from three, would make it appear to the uninformed that term limits were being put on for the first time, not being extended in length. That this election was occurring when no other elective contests, even special elections, were happening maybe emboldened them to think that habitual voters, who always show up but are minimally informed, might not know limits were in place and could be fooled into thinking they were imposing them would be represented disproportionately in turnout.

If so, that was a mistake relative to the tax renewal. Because local groups such as the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce and the Parish Executive Committee of the Caddo Republican Party – who GOP commissioners bucked by their approval to put the matter on the ballot – opposed the measure, among chronic voters, who vote habitually but who also inform themselves more than minimally, it was well known that this extended terms, and they were eager to get to the polls to negate it. Thus, the measure was shot down by about the same almost two-to-one margin as the original vote to impose them had enjoyed in approval in 1991.

Worse, in many parts of the parish this and the tax renewal proposition being the only things on the ballot, so it probably encouraged voters suspicious of property taxes to begin with to come out and to vote in disproportionate amounts. This possibility may have been on the minds of commissioners who pushed to have the election this year instead of next spring, as the length of the authorization ends in June, meaning if not renewed as each bond repayment tied to a portion of that millage expires the ability to tax that amount of millage also disappears after that date, thereby giving them a fallback date in case of failure.

Once again, it was Republican members who failed to distinguish themselves. It was Commission Democrats who actually argued to delay the vote, in order to have time to foster debate and to gather support, and the only GOP member who voted against putting the measure on the Oct. 19 ballot was Matthew Linn (who argued no good plan to spend the proceeds had been offered). So mostly Republicans sent the proposition to its electoral death by about four dozen votes that Saturday.

The spring date still is there, but the question is how much has this result poisoned the well and whether the Commission will embrace the result as a teaching moment about its recent arrogant behavior in a quest to win proposition passage. That election date will contain a similar demographic with more disgruntled voters than usual over the past few years, upset at the recent last resort lending and attempts to raise salaries and lengthen terms, that only now commissioners seem to have realized existed.

Having borrowing capacity is not a bad idea, for you never know when you’ll need it, and the parish has no obligation to sell those bonds, just the opportunity with passage of an authorized millage. Time will have passed to ameliorate voters’ hard feelings from the Commission’s recent follies by the spring, but it should take no chances by offering the millage in a reduced form. Then it can claim a partial tax cut would be coming with an affirmative vote, which should be enough to distract folks from its actions of the previous year and subtly reminds that the parish has a big reserve, which current officeholders would hope the electorate credits them for.

But some awfully swollen heads have emerged among Republicans and Democrats alike on the Commission that may resist humbling. Checking these egos and remembering who they are supposed to serve is the first step towards regaining enough public trust to win retention of tax revenue to service debt.

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