The Equity Factor

How Spending (and Taxing) Issues Are Shaping Three 2014 Mayoral Races

Taxes on cars, fitness, soda and more are impacting big mayoral races.

In Providence, mayoral candidate Jorge Elorza wants to update the city’s data and technology systems. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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Budget line items aren’t often trotted out in campaign speeches, but often we can glean candidates’ attitudes about fiscal management by looking at their stances on issues such as education, public safety, taxes and subsidies for developers. With that in mind, I took a look at the thornier spending (and taxing) debates that are impacting some 2014 mayoral races. (See here for “How Transportation Is Shaping Three 2014 Mayoral Races.”)


Former housing court judge Jorge Elorza upset City Council President Michael Solomon in the Democratic primary for the mayor of Providence on Tuesday. In November, he will face Republican Daniel Harrop and former mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. Cianci, who is running as an independent, was already ousted from the position twice, in 1984 and 2002, following convictions first for assault and battery and later for racketeering conspiracy.

In a highly excised city, taxes are both a campaign weapon and a target for reform, and the mayoral race features both angles.

In August, his former primary opponent released a video of Elorza saying that he is in support of a municipal income tax. “I was explaining that I am open to exploring the idea of a municipal income tax as an alternative to the burdensome car and property taxes,” responded Elorza. Yesterday, Cianci told a local radio station, “My opponent … proposes a municipal income tax.” Elorza again responded: “I have no plans to make any new taxes part of my agenda as mayor.”

As for reform, Elorza wants to shift the system of collecting the city’s yearly car tax from infrequent, large payments to smaller monthly payments that could be paid online or automatically deducted, and also change the way that cars are valued.

Gina Raimondo’s current run for Rhode Island governor on a record of presenting a fix to the state’s pension problems is putting a spotlight on that budget issue. The 73-year-old Cianci is still popular for presiding over the city’s 1990s economic revival, but in ’91, he authorized a pension decision that is seen as leading to the city’s current pension woes. Harrop, a dark horse in an overwhelmingly Democratic town, intends to put Providence in receivership (the state-level equivalent of bankruptcy) in order to clear its pension debts.

Washington, D.C.

As a Democrat and the frontrunner, Muriel Bowser has kept her hand close to her chest on many issues. Improving D.C.’s middle schools is the central issue of her education platform. The council member from Ward 4 proposes to strengthen average schools and turn them into high performers based on the successful Alice Deal school’s approach.

Independent Councilman David Catania — known for his aggressive style, his record as chairman of the council’s education committee, and an attentiveness to fiscal matters — has criticized Bowser’s platform. He points out that low-performing schools also deserve a share of money bookmarked for school improvements, saying “we have to make sure the dollars are being fairly and equitably distributed.”

Catania was also a vocal opponent to a fitness tax (popularly known as the “yoga tax”) that was a part of an expansion of sales tax in the city’s budget for 2015. (The expansion compensated for cuts to municipal business and individual income taxes.) In council, he introduced an amendment that would have removed the 5.75 percent sales tax on health clubs, tanning salons, bowling alleys and more. After it was defeated, he tweeted:


Republican Mayor Tom Tait has surprised his party base since his election in 2010 by opposing public subsidies for a major hotel development and alienating the owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim over the future of Angel Stadium, and with his handling of the fallout from police shootings that killed Latino men in 2012 and 2014. Tait has overseen the appointment of the city’s first Latino police chief, backed the police department’s $1.15 million dollar purchase of video cameras to be worn by officers, and supported the ballot referendum in November that will decide if city council will shift from at-large representation to district representation — likely resulting in more Latinos in city council.

Opponent Lucille Kring, who is running as an independent but has been a Republican political candidate before, is seeking to attract some of the votership that Tait has alienated. She is more pro-business, supporting a deal with the Angels to develop the space around the stadium in a 66-year $1-per-year lease, and backing the sale of $300 million in bonds to pay for an expansion of the city’s convention center (opposed by Tait). Democratic candidate Lorri Galloway a past city council member who generally sided with Tait on many fiscal issues, feels he’s too divisive. Tait supported public employees opting to cut their pensions to decrease the city’s unfunded pension liability, but Galloway felt he may have alienated city workers in the process.

Ballot Initiatives to Watch

San Francisco and Berkeley: Voters will choose whether to tax sugary drinks in both cities. In San Francisco, the money generated from the 2-cent-per-ounce tax on soda would be earmarked for “nutrition, physical activity, and health programs in public schools, parks, and elsewhere.” In Berkeley, the revenue from a 1-cent-per-ounce general tax on soda would go into a general fund, which will require fewer votes to pass than a special tax would.

Phoenix: Proposition 487 will decide on changing the city’s retirement system from a defined benefit system to a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan. It would also put a stop to pension spiking. Opponents say the pension reform measure would cut disability and death benefits.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: taxespublic schools2014 city vote2014 mayoral races

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