Mayor Frank Scott Jr.
FRANK SCOTT JR. (file photo) Brian Chilson

A proposal to raise Little Rock’s sales tax failed badly at the polls Tuesday.

With 100 percent of the vote counted, the unofficial results from the Pulaski County Election Commission are 62-38 against.

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21,000 voted, or about 18% of registered voters. That was slightly fewer than the number who turned out for the last Little Rock sales tax election in 2011, which voters approved.

The tax would have generated an estimated $53 million for the city over 10 years. It was to be spent on parks, a multi-sports complex, the Little Rock Zoo, a new West Little Rock fire station, community police officers, early childcare, the Little Rock Port, new downtown parking decks, the Museum of Discovery, downtown ambassadors for the Downtown Little Rock Partnership and more. That all was spelled out in a nonbinding resolution passed by the Little Rock Board of Directors.

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The proposal had a tumultuous path to the ballot. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. first floated the plan in early 2020, but then backed off with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. He revived his push earlier this year, but then faced weeks of resistance from the Board of Directors, which had to vote to call the election. After a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations, including the addition of a 10-year sunset, an unlikely coalition of directors approved the plan.

Scott released this statement after the results were released:

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“While this election did not turn out as we’d hoped, I’m grateful for the members of the City Board who placed this proposal before the voters and the people of Little Rock who campaigned with me for a stronger, more vibrant city. Your commitment and sacrifice to help Rebuild The Rock is to be applauded. I’m deeply appreciative of each of you and look forward to a day when many of the proposals that were part of Rebuild The Rock come to fruition.

“We always knew this would be a difficult journey-the pandemic has caused a great deal of uncertainty about the future.

“In the weeks and months ahead I will continue to work closely with the Board and residents to make the necessary adjustments for the expiring 3/8th cent sales tax.

“Together, we will keep fighting for quality early childhood education, amenities for our seniors, enhanced parks and recreation, affordable housing for hard-working families, and innovative policing and modernized fire operations to protect all residents.

“We’ll keep fighting to Rebuild The Rock.”

This defeat puts much more heat on Scott, especially, and the board to come up with a plan B. A three-eighths of a cent tax is set to expire at the end of the year. Little Rock will ultimately receive $38 million in federal coronavirus aid, but it’s limited in how that money can be spent.

It’s also perhaps a sign to potential mayoral challengers that voters have grown disenchanted with Scott, who soundly beat strong candidates in Warwick Sabin and Baker Kurrus in 2018. Tweets by former auto dealer Steve Landers suggest he’s going to announce his candidacy tomorrow. Local publisher Greg Henderson has already said he’s running. The field for the 2022 race is likely to grow considerably.

Meanwhile, here and elsewhere, there’s going to be a lot written about why voters so thoroughly rejected this proposal. I think, in addition to it being a proxy vote on Scott, it was a little bit of everything: A lot of progressives didn’t want to support a tax that would burden poor people amid a still raging pandemic. There’s always general anti-tax sentiment. (Sarah Sanders has already used the defeat to suggest it’s another sign that Arkansans want lower taxes, saying again that it’s time for income taxes to go.) Several of the city directors complained that there wasn’t enough meat and potatoes — spending for roads, fire and police — in the plan. Perhaps some voters felt similarly. I figured that the promise of vast parks improvements, which represented the majority of the planned spending, would move voters. But I also thought the tax would pass easily, so what did I know?

There will surely be a lot of talk about the significant funding for the Little Rock Zoo being a poison pill. The Arkansas Zoological Foundation, which raises money to support the zoo, was the largest contributor to the campaign for the tax. Zoo funding was politically key all along, but the idea of spending millions on a giraffe habitat didn’t sit well with a lot of people.

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I thought using tax money to improve the quality and access to early childcare was visionary, but while other cities have taken similar steps, it’s still somewhat novel. Also, specifics of the Little Rock plan were complicated and were often misrepresented by its critics. For those who wanted meat and potatoes, it was perhaps too exotic.