Vote NO on CATS tax

Vote NO on CATS tax

When I hear people discuss CATS and the San Francisco or Houston mass transit systems in the same sentence, I laugh. The city of Houston has 2.1 million residents verses our 230,000. And their metro area moves 6.1 million passengers daily compared to our 800,000. (Hey, Houston also has an international airport, can we get one of those, too?)

I understand that proponents of the new CATS tax are “wishing” big, but let's deal with our reality as we prepare to vote April 21. (That is, those of us in the city limits, who are the only ones who would have to pay this large tax for the next 10 years.)

While I understand the purpose, necessity and importance of mass transit in a growing city, this CATS tax plan should be euthanized. Below is my list of issues, questions and objections to the CATS tax and why I will vote no. But let me first say that, on a larger scale, I am disappointed in the lack of leadership on this major proposal and the abandonment of the proper way to handle it. The mayor, Metro Council, Baton Rouge Transit Coalition and CATS board are all responsible.

1) This is a major new tax with NO homestead exemption: 10.6 mills for 10 years. With Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary, it could total $18 million annually, or $180 million total. But even that could increase, with new construction over the next decade resulting in millions more. It's just extra “dedicated” money for CATS. And this is a new property tax for CATS, in addition to all our other dedicated taxes. (See our cover story here for a detailed look at dedicated taxes and what we pay.) Plus, we already have one of the highest sales taxes in the nation.)

2) The Baton Rouge Transit Coalition, which presented this tax, said they have “plans” for governance reform and accountability measures, with benchmarks that would hold everyone at CATS accountable, from the CEO to the bus drivers. But the specific accountability measures have not yet been determined. Rev. Raymond Jetson, chairman, who is a friend that I respect greatly, says he'll be watching closely. I believe him. But he said, “If CATS is not a good steward of the public resources, I will be the guy leading the defeat of the next vote.” I believe that too. Problem is, by then the taxpayers would be out at least $200 million. CATS has a long history that hasn't built much confidence. (See why in items 3 and 4 below.)

3) The privatized system at LSU charges students more and delivers a service superior to what CATS did when it had the LSU contract. The company had a good record, which is why it got the job. CATS blew its best customer, costing it revenue, and now it wants taxpayers to pay for its failure. (If you mess up and your business loses customers, can you ask taxpayers to pay for your bad management?) The same CATS that LSU got rid of for poor service now wants $30 million a year for 10 years—and claims it'll do a great job for residents. Really? What's its record? Can we fire CATS like LSU did and stop paying the tax? No.

4) Proponents want us to vote on this new tax with even more unanswered questions. They have more “plans” to establish stringent criteria for future members of the CATS board. And the basis of this bill seems to imply they want qualified members with professional expertise, as if the current CATS board (all appointed by the Metro Council) does not have it. At the same time, that board argues it has run CATS well and efficiently. So why are the coalition and the Baton Rouge chamber insisting on changing the composition and the criteria for board members? Is it a money and a management problem? Here's what's scary: This is a bill currently in the Legislature, and it might not become law—leaving things the way they are and giving this same board our $30 million a year to spend.

5) Another question: Metro Council members have said that if this tax passes, it will free up millions in the current general fund, which they currently spend on CATS, to play with. I had a friend ask, “Isn't this like Mayor Pat Screen's library tax?” That's where a new tax is passed, and instead of the additional dedicated funds going “on top” of what is already spent, it “replaces” those dollars and frees them for other uses. CATS will gain money, but also lose current funds. (See the comments from the Metro Council here, like, “Certainly there is no reason to keep funding it. … What would they do with that much money?”) Did you know you were about to get hit with that “bait and switch”? And what if this “city-parish” money that was freed up due to higher taxes on those living in the city was then spent in the parish? Does that sound fair?

6) This mass transit plan for the future would essentially benefit the entire community, but, it seems, only some in the community will pay for it. (See the map on page 19 to find out who.) And that was a very bad detour made by the coalition and the CATS board. They say that, facing a shutdown, they were forced to do it, because the mayor and Metro Council would not find the funds to allow a November election as the commission had planned for, with a new special district. (See JR Ball's column here, which addresses this fiasco.)

Last week, Councilwoman Tara Wicker said it would be “catastrophic” if this tax failed. Really? So why didn't she make a motion for the $2 million shortfall? While there is merit to the plan and it is worthy of debate in regards to our future, we should not rush to judgment on an enormous, 10-year tax that isn't even proceeding as originally planned by the coalition and still has so many unanswered questions. Proponents are telling voters, “Trust us, we'll fill in the blanks later.” It's not fair and it's not right—and I think voters should send that message by voting NO.

While Together Baton Rouge wants to pull out stats on our transit spending, here are some facts: Our murder rate per capita is at the top of the charts nationally and doubled over the last 10 years, and our school district scores in the East Baton Rouge Parish system are near the bottom of the list in the state, with thousands of kids failing—and they have bus transportation.

Ms. Wicker, that is your “catastrophic” situation: crime and education. What are the mayor, Metro Council and Together Baton Rouge doing about that? Will mass transit solve it? I think not.

Voters should turn down the tax and dare Holden and the Metro Council, who are all up for re-election this fall, to let the CATS system come to a screeching halt. You watch, they'll blink. And then we can discuss all our community's needs as a whole for the future, including our priorities, taxes and resources.

Sticking to the issues

I am invested deeply in matters like school choice, having believed for more than 17 years that it will reform education and benefit children. Others believe differently. That is democracy in action, and we can debate vigorously the issues and ideas.

But I have been guilty of going out of bounds at times and making it personal, using harsh words and unflattering terms. That has been the case several times in regards to Rep. Pat Smith. I called Rep. Smith last week and apologized. I told her, while we do disagree, the debate should be respectful and I will stick to the issues. She graciously accepted my apology. I wanted to publicly apologize here to her and my readers as well.

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