Republican candidates running for elected office in Hall County have been asked to sign a No Tax Pledge this week during the qualifying period.
And while pledging not to raise taxes is standard procedure for most conservative candidates, the issue has politically charged the race for local Board of Education posts after some incumbents seeking re-election declined to give their John Hancock to the document.
The Hall County Republican Party began circulating the pledge in 2010, piggybacking on a similar campaign targeting elected officials in Washington.
“We had a lot of folks who claimed to be Republicans ... yet they seemed to be pretty open to increasing taxes without a really legitimate reason for doing so,” said Paul Stanley, a lawyer and former chairman of the Hall County Republican Party. Stanley oversees the qualifying and credentialing process for local GOP candidates.
The pledge is seen by some local political observers as a sort of litmus test for GOP voters, and as a way to hold officials accountable for their positions both before and after the election.
“(The pledge) is just a physical reminder of the things they promised,” said Kris Yardley, current chairman of the Hall County Republican Party.
But the pledge has rubbed some candidates the wrong way.
“... I just can’t sign something that might turn out to be a lie later on,” said Bill Thompson, the at-large representative on the school board. “It’s easy to say I will not do something, but it’s not realistic.”
In recent years, the school board has rolled up millage rates on property taxes to help cover budget shortfalls. For example, the rate was increased to 19.25 from 18.49 for the current budget cycle.
Incumbent Sam Chapman, who thus far is running unopposed for re-election to the Post 1 seat, said it made little sense to handicap the board’s budget when the health of the local economy remains tenuous.
“You’re giving away a tool that you may need,” he said, explaining why he declined to sign the pledge.
Chapman said he would be more open to signing a similar pledge in a few years when things have improved.
“I’d sign that sucker in a heartbeat,” he added.
But when it comes to parsing words, debate remains about whether rolling up millage rates actually constitutes a tax increase.
A tax roll-up is an increase in the tax rate to the point where an equal amount of property tax revenues is expected. Since tax revenues remain the same in a roll-up, it’s not legally considered a tax increase even though the rate goes up.
Incumbent Brian Sloan, who appears to face the stiffest challenge to his campaign for re-election to the Post 2 seat, said those millage rate increases were not a tax hike.
“The thing that bothers me the least is my property taxes because I believe I get value out of local services,” he added.
Meanwhile, Thompson was unsure about how to view those increases.
“I guess that, in itself, it is technically an increase in taxes,” he said.
Either way, residents of Hall County can expect the issue of taxes to be played up in the school board race this year.
For Mark Pettitt, who is running against Sloan, the issue is a clear battleground in the election.
“We’re certainly going to let voters know that (Sloan) has supported tax increases,” Pettitt said. “I’m not going to entertain the idea of balancing the budget on the backs of Hall County taxpayers and teachers.”
Pettitt will be joined by Traci Lawson McBride, a retired educator, in opposing Sloan this year. And perhaps because of this political heat, Sloan was the one school board incumbent to sign the pledge even though he has presided over roll-ups in the past.
“To be honest, I don’t know if I could have signed it three or four years ago,” Sloan said. “I really don’t like to sign pledges like that.”
But Sloan, despite his reservations, said he felt the school board was now “out of the woods,” and that after years of budget cuts, teacher layoffs and tax increases, he felt the time was right to commit to no more hikes in millage rates.
“Had I not believed that I could hold to my word on that, I would not have signed it, regardless of anyone running against me,” he added.
Thompson is expected to be challenged by Paul Wayne Godfrey. Stanley said Godfrey was sending in his qualifying papers from Australia. But this political pressure would not drive Thompson to change his mind about the pledge.
“Whether I have an opponent or not has nothing to do with me signing the pledge not to raise taxes,” he said.
Stanley said he could foresee events or emergencies that would compel signers of the pledge to go back on their word. Signing, after all, is voluntary, and the pledge served as much as a statement of intent as a statement of fact.
“No one’s trying to hold a gun to anybody’s head in any way, shape or form,” Stanley said.