“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.” – Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale in his 1984 acceptance speech.
For his honesty, Mondale went on to lose 49 of 50 states in one of the biggest landslides in presidential history.
Victor Ronald Reagan went on to continue raising taxes by a variety of means – tightening rules on depreciation, accelerating planned increases in the payroll tax, eliminating deductions and the like – when his more ballyhooed income tax cuts left government too starved to perform its tasks.
That reality check comes to mind as Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton is realistic enough to talk about what she calls a “modest” property tax hike to fund services people want. As a counterpoint, Mayor Byron Brown proudly notes that he has steadfastly “held the line on taxes or cut taxes” during his four terms.
That issue, more than any other, will test whether Buffalo voters are any more sophisticated in 2021 than American voters were in 1984. Promising more or improved services without more money is a tried and true means of winning elections with the support of an electorate all too willing to suspend disbelief. Politicians who level with voters, on the other hand, often get punished.
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Let’s stipulate up front that no politician actually wants to raise taxes. But Walton’s candid assessment follows warning signs that were emerging well before the pandemic.
Brown’s fiscal management led early on to healthy fund balances. However, his aversion to tax hikes resulted more recently in the city being forced to draw down those surpluses, so much so that Common Council members, the city’s Control Board and rating agencies began warning of an inability to deal with what one agency called “cyclical economic stress.” Two of the agencies had even lowered their assessment of the city’s financial outlook.
But Brown does have some credible talking points on his side. One of those agencies – Fitch Ratings – last week revised its outlook on Buffalo from “negative” to “stable.” The city comptroller attributed the improvement to increased sales tax revenue, early repayment of money borrowed to cope during the pandemic and federal pandemic relief aid. Brown called Fitch’s move a recognition of “the city’s sound fiscal management and growing financial strength.”
We can excuse a politician for hyperbole, especially as he fights for his political life.
But the 2020 census also revealed that the city saw population growth for the first time in 70 years. At the same time, reassessment has brought rising property values – though that can be a double-edged sword for low-income homeowners who can’t afford their new tax bills. And the city has gotten a lot of national buzz in recent years as the waterfront and Medical Campus blossomed.
So when it comes to tax hikes, it really boils down to this: Where you stand on the issue may depend on where you lie down at night. If you live in a neighborhood with nice streets and sidewalks, bustling business strips, well-maintained playgrounds or fancy new lofts, you may well think Buffalo is doing just fine at current revenue levels.
But if you live in one of those neighborhoods where the pavement crumbles beneath your feet, community centers lack the resources to provide kids the enrichment they need, and commercial strips have more empty storefronts than thriving businesses, paying a bit more in taxes to get the services you need would be a bargain.
In a city annually ranked among the nation’s poorest, too many residents fall into the latter category while watching the city’s resurgence pass them by. In those neighborhoods, what Brown lauds as sound fiscal management has been met with protests and “subsidy tours” of high-end developments financed with tax breaks, tours organized by groups that want to “put people over profits.”
Walton is speaking to them, and for them, in a campaign that literally has become a tale of two cities.
Buffalo residents have already proven themselves a new breed of voter, mature enough not to be scared off by a label like “democratic socialist,” which Walton applies to herself and which Brown and other candidates hurl as an epithet at every opportunity. That once-frightening term didn’t stop voters from choosing her in the Democratic primary, or scare the host of elected officials and organizations that have endorsed her since.
So maybe the phrase “tax hike” won’t be so scary, either, at least for those who look around at obvious needs and are ready to say it’s not 1984 anymore.