Commentary: Why Do Republicans Want Sales Tax Repeal So Badly?

Jul 25, 2018

There is a three-foot stack of forms over at the office of Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes that contain 38,065 signatures.

Some are the legitimate, valid signatures of Hamilton County voters.

Some are not.

If at least 23,629 of them are valid voters' signatures, an issue will likely go on the November ballot to repeal a .02 percent increase in the county sales tax approved by the two Democratic county commissioners, Todd Portune and Denise Driehaus.

They say it is the only practical and fair way to close a looming $28 million hole in the county's budget.

Republicans beg to differ. And, with their friends in the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), mounted the three-week petition drive that produced this huge mound of paper. You can look at the petitions yourself by going to the county auditor's website (PDF).

The nearly three-foot high stack of petitions presented to the county auditor's office Wednesday, July 18.
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU

The law says the petitions must be in the auditor's office for public inspection for 10 days before going on to the Hamilton County Board of Elections, where board employees will check the validity of the names.

Ever since they were delivered to the auditor a week ago, volunteers from the Hamilton County Democratic Party and the Ohio Democratic Party have been in Rhodes' office, pouring over the papers.

They're not looking at the validity of signatures – the board of election will do that. There are some very specific requirements for circulating petitions, and the Democratic volunteers are looking for petitions that weren't filled out properly.

They're also trying to get a handle on how many of the signatures were collected by volunteers and how many came from paid circulators.

A statement of expenditures filed Monday with the board of elections showed that the Hamilton County Republican Party spent $49,500 to hire paid solicitors.

Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, told WVXU that an estimated 25 percent of the 38,065 signatures were gathered by paid circulators.

It matters because, generally speaking, volunteers do a better job of finding valid registered voters than do  paid solicitors.

"They filed forms from circulators who came in from Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Texas – all over,'' said Hamilton County Democratic Party executive director Caleb Faux.

Faux is coordinating the volunteers, but not checking petitions himself – he is a member of the county board of elections, which will have to vote on whether to put the issue on the ballot.

"It wouldn't be appropriate for me to be doing that,'' Faux said. "I'm one of the four people who will end up deciding this."

Why we are going through all of this? There is a really simple explanation.

The Republicans want a repeal issue on the ballot because they believe it will drive up turnout of conservative voters and help GOP candidates such as U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, Hamilton County commissioner Chris Monzel and county auditor candidate Nancy Aichholz.

The Democrats don't want it on the ballot because it could end up helping candidates like Chabot, Monzel and Aichholz.

Simple as that.

It also explains why the Republicans, at the press conference in front of the county administration building before turning in their petitions, had several young people waving handmade signs in the background urging people to vote against the "Aftax" – a rather silly reference to Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, who is the Democrat taking on Chabot this year.

Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou presents sales tax repeal petitions to the county auditor's office. Behind him are GOP volunteers urging people to vote down the "Aftax," a reference to Democratic Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, who had nothing to do with the tax.
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU

The GOP is clearly spooked by Pureval, even though Chabot's district can be mighty difficult for a Democrat.

But Tuesday, Sabato's Crystal Ball – a publication from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics that tracks gubernatorial and congressional campaigns – changed its rating for the 1st Congressional District of Ohio, moving it from "Leans Republican" to "Toss Up."

That will make some in the Chabot camp reach for the antacid tablets.

There is no truth to their "Aftax" ploy whatsoever. Pureval had absolutely nothing to do with creating the .02 percent sales tax increase. No more than you did, unless your names happen to be Todd Portune or Denise Driehaus.

So, they have tried one campaign ploy for the tax repeal that has already blown up in their faces.

The petitions will probably go to the board of elections on July 30, and it will take several days to validate signatures.

Faux said the validity rate with volunteer circulators is usually around 70 to 75 percent. With paid circulators, Faux said, the validity rate drops to 50 percent or less. That matches what we have seen in past petition initiatives.

Sometime in early August – possibly August 8 – we will know whether this tax repeal will be on the November ballot.

And, if it is, it will likely be as much about electing candidates as it is about repealing a tax.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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