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Whalum: It’s Not a Vote on Pre-K, It’s a Vote on Raising Taxes

November 21, 2013

Common sense trumped idealism when former MCS board member and mayoral candidate Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr. and City Council member Shea Flinn debated  Memphis’ half-cent sales tax increase referendum at Memphis Rotary Clubs weekly meeting on Tuesday at the University Club.

Both Dr. Whalum and Mr. Flinn are Pre-K advocates.  Mr. Flinn, co-sponor of the ballot initiative along with fellow Councilman Jim Strickland, argued that Pre-K must be  implemented immediately and that there is no available source of funding other than a local sales tax increase. If the proposed ordinance to raise Memphis city sales taxes by one-half cent is approved in tomorrow’s (November 21) referendum, Memphis’ combined sales taxes will reach the legal limit of 9.75%. Memphis and its suburban Shelby County municipalities  already have the highest sales tax rates in Tennessee, and Tennessee has a higher rate than any other U.S. state.

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Dr. Whalum maintained that the proposal is ill-advised and poorly written. Sales taxes are regressive, he pointed out, and will hurt the very families – that is, the poor – for which public Pre-K is intended. He repeatedly returned to the vague wording of the proposed ordinance, arguing that the guarantees and promises made by its proponents are not confirmed in the ballot question itself. He insisted, “This is not a vote on Pre-K. It’s a vote on taxes. Read it.” He also told the audience of Memphis business and civic leaders, “You are not voting on Pre-K, you are voting how to fund it,” clarifying his position that universal Pre-K is too important to Memphis to risk getting the funding wrong.

Mr. Flinn acknowledged that no one knows the actual number of children who will be served by additional Pre-K slots, either immediately or in future years, and therefore, the precise revenues needed are unknown. Mr. Flinn also confirmed the suspicions of many potential voters, that the proposed “excess funds” generated by the tax increase would not necessarily be used to lower Memphis property taxes, as stated in the ballot issue.Voters shouldn’t expect a big tax reduction resulting from approval of the bill, Mr. Flinn admitted, with candor that surprised some  audience members. “We don’t know what the birth rate is going to be in five years,” he said. In his opening remarks, Mr. Flinn had earlier indicated that after universal Pre-K for four year olds is in place, the Council would push for its extension to three year olds.

In a Q&A session following the debaters’ opening remarks, Rotarian and “Superlawyer” Jim Summers read passages Q&Aof  the three major studies most often quoted by Pre-K advocates as proof that Pre-K is needed and necessary, including the Congressional report on Head Start  and Tennessee-based studies by the University of Memphis and Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute.  All three studies agreed that benefits of Pre-K programming are short-lived, sparking  doubt about the value of allocating scarce resources to idealistic but unproven public policy initiatives like the one on tomorrow’s ballot. Mr. Summers, who regularly reads to elementary school children through a Rotary program, said he had wanted to believe in Pre-K, but the studies didn’t support what has been said about its benefits.

As Back in River City argued in our last post, if the majority of Memphians want public Pre-K,   common sense says we must slow down and take another look at what our goals are, what the likely outcomes will be, and how it should be paid for. President Obama wants to provide “a continuum of high quality early learning,” starting with pre-K,  “for every child,”  so  Federal support may be in the offing. The shallow, rush-headlong-into-the-unknown  thinking reflected by tomorrow’s referendum is  exactly the kind of ill-conceived public policy that has created and exacerbated many of Memphis’ problems over the years.  We need elected leaders that are not afraid to stand up against popular but impolitic political crusades.

Dr. Whalum handily won yesterday’s Rotary Club debate with his insistence on evaluating the sales tax referendum on what it actually says, not on what its proponents promise.  Tomorrow, you can vote for prudence or you can vote for more of the poor public policy that plagues our city.  Voter turnout is expected to be low, so the people who care enough to make the trip to the polls will decide this significant issue.

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Whatever your position on this important issue . . .

go vote

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