The big story last week in Jacksonville happened Wednesday evening.
The Florida Times-Union reported that Mayor Lenny Curry planned to put his pension tax referendum up to a vote in August to tackle the unfunded pension liability that bedevils local budgets … including the one currently being devised for next fiscal year.
The official reason: “This is a financial crisis and we need to get certainty on solving the unfunded pension liability. The earliest date we can go is August.”
Curry followed that up with a promise of an “austere budget,” one consistent with what he’s telling councilmembers in one-on-one meetings. Until this unfunded liability is addressed, locals can expect More of the Same, in terms of roads, infrastructure, and public safety funding.
Whether that dose of castor oil will incentivize votes is an open question at this point.
It’s notable that going in August instead of November matters, because it effectively limits the universe of voters. Low-information November voters, especially those without a party ID, will not be voting in August … unless they’re driven to show up to vote on this referendum.
The case for the referendum boils down to this: It creates money in the budget for other things, by amortizing the obligations of what will be the closed “defined benefit” plan. In terms of the 2017 budget, it could save anywhere from $38-$62 million.
In a billion-dollar budget, that projected $62 million in savings represents 6.2 percent more operating capital.
Quite encouraging. But there’s a caveat worth mentioning, especially for those worried about Kicking the Can Down the Road.
The old defined benefits pension plan won’t be fully funded for decades; even in 2045, it would be at 60 percent. By then, many of you reading this will be dead. And the rest of us will be working as swing-shift WalMart greeters.
There are, to be sure, political ramifications as well.
For one thing, the pension tax now looms over all local House races. Candidates backed by the mayor will, no doubt, make the case. As will myriad glad-handing locals who still want Curry to be their buddy in public. Expect more of the stirring Tweets and Facebook posts endorsing the measure and extolling the mayoral vision from certain candidates and political actors.
But what of those left out in the cold, such as certain Democrats, especially those still smarting from being dumped from boards and certain Republicans, specifically, candidates Curry is not backing in House races.
Will they take the anti-tax “populist” position? In crowded races, especially in HD 11 and 12, there’s no reason not to … if Curry isn’t backing you anyway. And if you’re a Democrat, not thrilled with the partisan machinations of the executive branch, why would you be All In?
Curry needs to get to 50-percent-plus-1 in August. His political team believes he has the personal favorability and name ID numbers to do it. And, as I wrote last week, observing that mega-popular John Delaney got only 57 percent support 16 years ago for the BJP, he’ll need those tailwinds.
But even if he is generally popular, there’s another caveat.
August voters, by and large, will be conservative anti-tax Republicans, voting in the battle royale of the GOP Senate primary (as of yet, Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy have not made plays up here … and Independents, of course, will be showing up to vote on this alone, which should suppress their vote unless they’re motivated).
Are the most conservative voters in Duval ready to vote to “extend” the half-cent sales tax? Including the subset that chafed over Curry backing Rubio instead of Trump in March? That question may be the base of this whole effort.
Another question is, how will voters who know they have no pension, who will work until they die, who lack the safety net people in other states have with Medicaid expansion, who get poorer every year, react to paying a tax until 2060 to protect the pensions of John Keane and the Police & Fire Pension Fund?
Word is, the Chamber wasn’t enthusiastic about a tax referendum when Alvin Brown was mayor. They didn’t think it could pass with voters. Now they’re all in. (Let’s leave aside that the Chamber was absolutely useless when it came to getting the HRO past the wild-eyed mouth-breathers of the Evangel Temple, which raises questions about its actual political capital in this populist age).
The elites are all in behind this. The populists are an unknown quantity.
In August, we’ll find out who has more stroke.