What are the chances local voters will approve a second sales tax vote for another public improvement? Some previous polling data might give insight.
Oklahoma County officials are expected to send the proposal to a vote sometime between May and July of next year. The proposed county sales tax to fund construction of a new jail would be either a half-cent or one-cent.
With Oklahoma City’s passage of the MAPS 3 sales tax initiative earlier this month, some county officials, like Commissioner Ray Vaughn, are optimistic a county tax vote for a jail has a promising chance. But an Oklahoma Gazette/News 9 poll conducted in September shows Vaughn needs to be cautious about his optimism.
The September poll was taken as part of a MAPS 3 survey of Oklahoma City residents, and included this question about a new jail: “If a new Oklahoma County jail must be built, which of the following methods of financing do you prefer the most?”
Respondents were given four choices: part of the MAPS 3 sales tax; a separate county sales tax; property tax assessment; and none of the above.
The final choice received the highest marks, with 45.5 percent not liking any of the first three options. The property tax was the least favorable method, with less than 5 percent approving.
“There is resistance in general, and I think the big thing is the public doesn’t understand what is wrong with the jail, and the public doesn’t understand why the jail has to be addressed,” said Keith Gaddie, vice president of Shapard Research, which conducted the poll.
The reason the jail has to be addressed is, simply put, because the federal government said so. The U.S. Department of Justice threatened Oklahoma County with a takeover of the jail if several deficiencies were not fixed. The main concern raised was that more space and surveillance were needed for prisoners.
The county board of commissioners started discussions on calling for a sales tax vote to build the new jail. It estimated at least $350 million is needed for construction, and that a half-cent sales tax increase would raise around $57 million each year.
In the poll, it was hard to find any decent level of support for more public money going toward community projects. Democrat or Republican, male or female, young or old, getting votes may be hard to come by, according to the data.
The poll also found this: If there is going to be public financing of a new jail, the sales tax is the best option. In all demographics, it consistently surveyed better than increasing property taxes, which never had more than single-digit support.
According to the survey, county officials should look for a voter who is an African-American, moderate Democrat, making more than $100,000 a year, between the ages of 25 and 34, and who attends church once a week. But looking at census figures, that voter doesn’t exist in great numbers. Nonetheless, those are the characteristics the poll found had the highest levels of support.
“Folks that are going to support a sales tax are going to be of two sorts,” Gaddie said. “They’ve accepted the fact you have to do this thing. That’s where the moderates come into play. The second thing is, they are going to be more middle-class and affluent. They don’t feel the bite of sales tax as much as the bite of a property tax. Everyone shares in a sales tax; only property owners share in a property tax.”
The highest level of support in the poll came from respondents between the ages of 25 and 34, of whom nearly 42 percent said using a sales tax to build a jail was a good idea.
County officials have yet to determine what the final numbers of the proposal will be. But they already know their argument: If county residents don’t voluntarily pay for a new jail, the feds will do it for them. Which means property taxes would go up, without any vote, to fund the project.
“In a state that already distrusts the federal government, having a court order them to do that isn’t going to engender any love with the current administration or the judicial system,” Gaddie said.
Even with the poll showing low support for public funding of a new jail, county officials can take heed of one outcome: The poll also found trouble spots for major parts of the MAPS 3 proposal. Yet when it came time for the vote to count, 54 percent of Oklahoma City voters said yes.
If a new Oklahoma County jail must be built, which of the following methods of financing do you prefer the most?
1. If paid for by an extension of the MAPS sales tax: 199 respondents (21.7 percent)
2. If paid for by a separate county sales tax: 257 (28 percent)
3. If paid for by a property tax assessment: 43 (4.7 percent)
4. If none of the above: 418 (45.5 percent)
Source: Oklahoma Gazette/News 9 poll, Shapard Research