CATS pounces

CATS pounces

Give those responsible for running the parish bus system credit for being quick to recognize a fortuitous opportunity. Once it became clear that a crime fighting committee—comprised of politicians and public safety professionals—was fumbling away its chance to get a much-discussed tax proposal on the April ballot, the board that oversees the Capital Area Transportation System acted within 24 hours to fill the void.

I'm not sure which is more amazing: a crime committee—at work for months to address what East Baton Rouge Parish residents consistently say is a top priority—utterly failing to honor its pledge to get a proposal before the voters in April, or the CATS board being clever enough and nimble enough to pounce on the ballot opening.

Either way, it's a serendipitous development for a bus system facing a $2.1 million operating deficit that could shutter the bus system by the end of July, say CATS officials at every opportunity.

There's nothing preventing multiple tax packages on the same ballot, of course, other than common sense about the reality that is tax-leery Baton Rouge. Passage of one tax on the ballot is a maybe; two or more is death. Which is why entities desperately seeking taxes have something of a gentlemen's agreement to slot their proposals one election at a time. Consequently, the public safety tax was to go before voters in the spring and CATS was to take its chances in the fall.

Though CATS is tasked with serving the mass transportation needs of East Baton Rouge, this 10-year, property-tax fueled mass transportation proposal will go only before the voters in incorporated Baton Rouge and the cities of Baker and Zachary. Just as clever as the unique taxing district is this ditty: the tax need only pass in Baton Rouge for it to be a go.

The theory, we're told, behind the gerrymandering—er, specially crafted taxing district—is not to avoid voters in Central and the unincorporated parts of the parish, who almost certainly would reject it. Instead it's all about asking only those living in areas where CATS operates to pay for mass transportation service. (For now, let's not delve into the craziness and fallacy of this argument.)

Weighing in at an eye-popping 10.6 mills, the proposal will generate roughly $18.4 million annually, $16.7 million in Baton Rouge alone, should it win approval in all three cities. Either way, passage more than doubles the current cash-strapped CATS budget of $12 million. The money not only wipes out current operating deficits, but also will enable CATS to update its fleet of buses, add new routes and improve bus stops.

The move from fall to spring, however, is not without significant risk.

As originally conceived, this package was to be a much smaller bump in property taxes (4 mills), coupled with a quarter-cent sales tax. The sales tax portion of the plan, however, required action by the State Legislature, since proponents were crafting a gerrymandered—er, special—taxing district. Jumping ahead on the calendar wipes out the sales tax option, leaving the entire deal dependent upon voters' willingness to accept much higher property taxes.

Therein lies the serious risk associated with the April date. Voters have historically proven they don't mind taxation by a thousand cuts (sales taxes), but they abhor the bloodletting of a significant increase in their annual property tax bill.

A parishwide 3.5-mill CATS tax package was defeated by voters last October. Even with a gerrymandered—er, special—taxing district, a 10.6-mill hike will be a tough sell—even more so since this is a municipal tax, eliminating the benefit of the homestead exemption.

As troubling is the rhetoric we're now hearing to promote the tax. When representatives of a Blue Ribbon transportation panel were promoting their findings last year, they made it clear their work and their call for higher taxes were not about saving CATS or avoiding its annual funding crisis. Instead, they were about developing a long-term, multiple-option transportation strategy. We heard about trollies and economic development transportation hubs.

Today, the only thing we're hearing is the tax is necessary to save CATS and solve its annual funding crisis. True, a portion of the new tax would indeed go to long-term solutions to this area's crippling transportation problem, but it's clear from the early rhetoric that CATS and its leadership see this tax as a life preserver in a sea of red ink.

Right now, the message is tied to CATS as we know it. If that's the game plan for a winning tax vote, I submit it will be every bit as effective as the one LSU's offense used against Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.

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