Cover Story: Sales tax hike for transit?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Charlotte City Council talking about the transit tax.  That's the half cent sales tax Mecklenburg county has which funds transit projects like light rail and bus lines.  On the city council agenda, should the city ask the legislature for permission to hike the transit tax another half cent?  As PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson explains many people are hearing "tax hike" and assume their taxes are going up immediately.

When Mecklenburg voters said "yes" to a half-cent hike in the transit tax ten years ago to fund a new train system and expand bus routes.. other counties in North Carolina wanted the same authority.

House Bill 148.. introduced two months ago.. gives them that power.

Gives them the right to raise the sales tax a half cent for transit.

The bill doesn't automatically raise taxes.. instead gives local authorities the option to.. if voters in that community say "yes" in a referendum.

With congestion not just in Charlotte.. but in all the urban areas getting worse.. other areas are clammoring for a hike in the sales tax for transit.

Areas like Raleigh Durham..  Winston-Salem, Greenboro, High Point.  Even towns like Fayetteville and Asheville.

But when the bill was introduced in the General Assembly.. giving counties the right to raise their sales tax if they want to.. everyone in the state was included except Mecklenburg county.

It wasn't an oversight.. it was deliberate says bill sponsor Becky Carney of Mecklenburg county.

"No one from the city or the county reached out to me prior to the bill being run," she says.  "Nobody was lobbying Raleigh from Charlotte for expansion money for transit."

Realizing they may have have missed the boat.. er--train.. city and county leaders are now debating whether to lobby the legislature to have Mecklenburg county included in House Bill 148.

Giving Mecklenburg... the option to ask voters for another half-cent hike for transit.

Local leaders say any tax hike won't happen this year.. and may never happen..  but they'd like to have the tool in their toolbox.

But stunts like month's Tea Party protesting taxes.. have made it more difficult for local politicians to even ask the General Assembly for the authority.. especially now.. even if it may be needed down the road.

Says Rep. Carney, "It isn't something that you're going to implement right away but it's hard to get sales tax options out of Raleigh for anything. And local governments need more revenue menus."

Local governments can't raise taxes on their own.. first have to get permission from the General Assembly..

Complicating matters is a promise local leaders made two years ago during a voter-led revolt of the transit tax.

Local leaders said then the half-cent would fund all future transit projects.. and clearly that won't be the case.

That's promise now feels kind of empty, can Charlotte Mecklenburg be added to the bill?

It's in the Senate right now.. already passed the House-- had bi-partisan support there.

The Senate could choose to add Mecklenburg county.

To put a half-cent hike in perspective-- for every 10 dollars you spend.. it'll cost you an extra nickel.