The main courtroom in the County Courthouse was absolutely packed tonight -- standing-room only -- and by my count, all speakers at the public hearing on the proposed quarter-cent sales tax referendum were in favor except for five people who spoke against it. That was 39 in favor, 5 against.
And when the public hearing was over, almost every living soul left the room, and when the commissioners resumed their meeting, the three Republican commissioners were in what could justifiably be described as a snit over what happened at the public hearing. And to make a long, contentious story short, they promptly voted 3-2 to rescind their own resolution to hold the sales tax referendum.
The courtroom was packed with teachers, teachers assistants, principals, and other school personnel along with a fair number of parents of students in the school system, and these folks simply assumed that the sales tax was going to be devoted to keeping the schools strong. Despite what Commission Chair Nathan Miller said just as the public hearing was about to get underway.
Miller reiterated that the sales tax was intended exclusively for "debt service." Mr. Jim Deal then said he disagreed with Miller, and said the sales tax was about "keeping teachers in classrooms" and keeping education strong in Watauga County. There was thunderous applause at that point, and from there on through the public hearing nary a soul mentioned debt service. Everyone -- or very nearly everyone, except for a small clutch of Tea Partiers -- was on board with the money going to schools. In a real sense, education hijacked the sales tax.
So when the room had cleared after the public hearing, Blust immediately made his motion to rescind the tax referendum, and Vince Gable seconded the motion. Gable was visibly angry: What we saw here tonight was clearly orchestrated by the School Board, he said, to change the whole purpose of the tax referendum. "The resolution we voted on was to dedicate the tax to debt reduction. Now we're saying we're going to use it for education!"
Blust went further. He said, "I resent it very much" that the courtroom was packed with school supporters. "They sent out e-mails," he said. Jim Deal answered Blust: "You've never had any trouble packing the courtroom when it's an issue you care about." "I have a real problem with your not allowing a public vote on the referendum that you called for," Deal said, referring to himself as someone very "committed to education."
Blust shot back: "You're committed to spending on education."
Miller: "This has morphed into something that we didn't intend," thus invoking one of the first laws of economics, the law of unintended consequences, of which these three Republican commissioners seem amazingly ignorant.
Deal argued eloquently for not rescinding the referendum, to no avail. At one point he said, "Look, if you three want to allocate all the sales tax money to debt service, you obviously have the votes to do whatever you want." Which might have swayed even Attila the Hun to call off his sacking of Rome, but it did not convince the Republican commissioners. In the end, it was 3-2 (Miller, Gable, and Blust prevailing) to rescind the referendum which the same three voted to hold just two weeks earlier.
The Tea Party Influence
The Republicans kept making reference to all the people they've been hearing from "out in the county" who are solidly opposed to any tax hike, people who apparently aren't comfortable coming to a public hearing. (One might also guess that they were regular Republicans somewhat embarrassed that their own commissioners had voted to raise taxes but didn't like coming out to attack them in public.)
Commissioner Vince Gable at least had become a target for some harsh personal criticism on a local Tea Party email list. The “steering committee” of the Boone Tea Party sent out a message essentially defending Gable and Miller, saying they had taken a “last-ditch option” in proposing a referendum on raising the local sales tax and that all they wanted was the option and that a popular vote for raising the sales tax would not necessarily mean that the County Commish would actually raise those taxes.
Some on the Tea Party list didn’t take that message at all well. They said (in essence), "Maybe we fell off the turnip truck yesterday, but we sure as hell didn’t land on our head!"
At least one Tea Partier took the occasion to attack Gable personally and in the harshest terms. Which prompted an apology from the Boone Tea Party steering committee to the entire email list for inadvertently enabling personal attacks on public officials.
Meanwhile, the power brokers of the local Republican Party were gamely signing on to the tax hike in an editorial in Sunday's Watauga Democrat. Having the tax referendum sprung on them two weeks ago may pale in comparison to having the tax referendum jerked away from them now that they've endorsed it.
The Beauty of Tonight's Public Hearing
Personally, I have rarely heard more eloquent -- and frankly moving -- speakers at any public hearing in my 20+ years of attending public hearings. The teachers and supporters of teachers who spoke tonight about the dire peril they're in, and about the job they've been doing for the children of Watauga County, made me want to stand up and applaud them. Also made me want to vote for the tax I was leaning against.
But now no one will be able to vote for the tax, not for debt service nor for education.
We are, in short, at sea in Watauga County.