The Brown Stare-Down
Jacksonville's Democratic mayor hasn't budged on raising taxes, perhaps to the surprise of conservatives
There are reasons that Jacksonville's politically conservative business leaders supported Democrat Alvin Brown for mayor over conservative Republican Mike Hogan. The principal reason was to raise taxes. Jax Chamber and the Civic Council knew what Mayor John Peyton and other city leaders had known since 2007: that the lowest-taxed major city in the U.S. must raise taxes not only to grow, but simply to operate.
In 2011, a calculation was made that if ultra-conservative Mike Hogan was elected mayor, he wouldn't support raising taxes even if City Hall itself went into foreclosure. The Chamber didn't endorse any mayoral candidate in 2011, which meant that even though they were comfortable endorsing Don Redman for council, they weren't comfortable with Republican mayoral candidate Hogan. That's highly unusual and it removed barriers to Brown's eventual election.
Anyone doing business in this city knows that municipal government must be functional to do those untidy, unprofitable things that businesses cannot afford to do themselves. It must be quite a quandary for the conservative political mind to realize tax increases are actually necessary to do business here. Conservative Republicans have spent 30-plus years and billions of dollars convincing themselves, and anyone who would listen, that taxes always destroy business despite all the actual evidence to the contrary. In 2011, Jacksonville business leaders needed a political and fiscal solution that would allow Republicans to avoid the self-inflicted, political death-blow that raising taxes would cause. Democrat Alvin Brown seemed to be the answer.
Democrats raise taxes. That's what they do. This is the other side to the taxes always kill business argument of conservative invention. The ultimate conclusion to this argument in 2011 became: If Jacksonville were to elect a Democrat for mayor, then he would immediately propose a tax increase and we would all be saved from ourselves and the city could continue to operate. Once this conclusion was drawn, one by one, business leaders who had politically funded Republican majorities both in the county and state came out of their conservative closets and supported Democrat Brown for a narrow mayoral victory.
I wonder if they're now thinking they miscalculated and "misunderestimated" our mayor. He is a Democrat, but he's not a liberal. His past two budgets have shown clearly that the mayor really is committed to his pledge to the voters that he will not raise taxes. Of course, the mayor, business leaders and political leaders know that the mayor doesn't raise taxes; the City Council sets the millage rate. As long as the mayor doesn't propose a budget that requires a millage increase, he can keep his pledge. Peyton proposed millage increases in his last three budgets despite his no tax increase pledge. The current mayor's budget leaves the Republican majority on the Council in the same pre-2011 quandary: Raise taxes and suffer the self-imposed political consequences, or preside over the Detroit-style financial collapse of the city the Council was charged with running? Brown is staring Republicans down on this decision, and they're starting to blink.
Another top reason for conservative defections in 2011 was and is the city's pension liabilities. Democrats like Brown are tight with the unions and can make a deal with the police and fire unions (even though Mike Hogan was a union representative at Bell South). Police & Fire Pension Fund liabilities currently represent the largest single revenue demand on the city today and will continue to grow into the future under the current contract. This is true of most municipalities who have employees these days. If the ballooning pension liabilities can be fixed, both in the short term and over the long term, we may avoid tax increases and financial collapse — win-win. How could it be that Brown's pension plan can have the support of police and fire union leaders but be called inadequately funded by the Chamber and Civic Council?
The pension issue is where we're seeing an increasing amount of daylight between the mayor and his well-heeled campaign supporters. It appears that the Civic Council and the Chamber are also still left with the chore they had before the mayor's race — advocate for tax increases and ask police officers and firefighters to contribute even more of their frozen salaries into a distressed pension fund. Here's a quote from the Civic Council published in The Florida Times-Union in June after the mayor's pension reform plan was released: "Meaningful reform, the group said, requires current employees to contribute more and taxes to be raised so the plan can be fully funded more quickly." And from the Jax Chamber's new CEO, conservative Daniel Davis, published in the Times-Union in July: "Duval County's first responders deserve to have their service rewarded with a pension that is funded, accountable and predictable. The legislation in front of the City Council simply does not go far enough to ensure this." These conservative business groups don't believe the mayor's proposal had enough revenue or was accommodating enough to union employees in government.
Wait, what? The Civic Council and the Chamber are campaigning on the budget to the left of our Democratic mayor? It does appear that way. And I have to give Brown huge props for that result. He's doing what President Barack Obama has been unable to do with a business-funded, political opposition and a legislative body stacked against him. Imagine if the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or Congress started advocating positions to the left of the president. Brown is doing it by just standing pat on revenue-neutral proposals and staring down the conservatives who created this fiscal mess through tax cuts and pension "holidays" until they gather the will to fix it with revenue. And it's working. It takes a lot of willpower to break an ideological belief system. It takes large doses of reality and very real consequences to convince people to trade political ideology for actual responsibility. And it looks like we're beginning to see light at the end of that tunnel, even if that light exists between the mayor and his most prominent supporters.
To come out of this the "good guy," Brown will have to do better than just stare down the council and say, "Vote for my pension deal or the library gets the ax." All sides should avoid this kind of hostage-taking. We really don't need to choose who gets victimized by the budget. Neither police nor fire employees created this budget problem, nor did poor people. Ideological voters and their politicians created it and now we all have to take the medicine needed to fix it.
The City Council, by its surprise vote on July 23, took the plunge to raise the millage rate to keep the same revenue. They also voted the mayor's pension plan down in the same meeting. The Republican-led Council may become heroes to Brown supporters but be vilified by their own base, while the mayor may lose more support from his base and become the fiscal champion to government-slashing conservatives. What's going on? Will the mayor sign a budget that includes a millage rate increase? He can't veto it. Stay tuned. We'll know by October.
What really matters is that the city can function well and be prepared to grow as business returns. What's also critically important is to take care of those who have sworn to protect us in the way we promised. What we have to agree on is that a functioning city is not an ideological abstraction. It's a real thing. Jacksonville is our real thing that needs real solutions to fiscal and ideological problems. We will see if the mayor and City Council members can look past ideology and the 2015 election to get real about the solutions. It looks like the Chamber and the Civic Council will support them if they do. Then we can all stare in awe at what cooperation and responsibility in government looks like. It's been too long.
Minion is a 30-year resident of Jacksonville who has been involved with numerous, local, political campaigns over the past 11 years. He is a business owner and homeowner in Riverside.