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Commentary: County Sales Tax Creates Partisan Battle (Again)

sales tax petition
Ann Thompson
An organizer arranges petitions Monday at the GOP's downtown headquarters.

Well, so much for civility in politics in this neck of the woods.

State Rep. Tom Brinkman, the Mt. Lookout Republican, has always been something of a bull in a china shop during his years in politics.

Monday, at a press conference at county GOP headquarters, local Republicans announced a petition drive to repeal a 0.25% sales tax that the three Democratic county commissioners voted to enact last week.

The commissioners, Brinkman said, are "sneaky bastards. This is the second time they've done it."

If Brinkman's mouth were to be washed out with soap, his preferred brand would likely be Coast, given the fact that he was one of the founders of COAST, the anti-tax group that teamed up with the GOP to fight another sales tax increase.

The GOP and COAST ended up getting what they wanted when the two Democratic commissioners who voted for it, Todd Portune and Denise Driehaus, decided discretion was the better part of valor and repealed it themselves.

How Brinkman or anyone else could accuse the commissioners of skulking around under the cover of darkness this time around is beyond me.

The commissioners' decision to approve the 0.25% sales tax is supposed to replace a temporary tax to pay for Union Terminal renovations. That temporary tax is about to expire, but with the commissioners' action last week to keep it to help deal with a looming $20 million budget deficit, the county's sales tax will remain at 7% instead of dropping to 6.75%.

If they are sneaky bastards, they are the worst at being sneaky in the history of Hamilton County government. The issue was debated by the commissioners ad nauseum and was done in the light of day, with every news outlet in Cincinnati reporting on it almost daily.

The Democratic commissioners – Driehaus, Portune, and Stephanie Dumas – say it is not a tax increase, because the rate will remain at 7%.

This is true.

The Republicans, who have no county commissioners these days, say it is a tax increase, because if the Union Terminal tax had been allowed to expire, the new tax rate would be 6.75%.

Also true.

Glass half full or glass half empty?

But when it comes to sneakiness, the Hamilton County Republican Party is not made up of babes in the wood, innocent Aquarians with flowers in their hair, spreading peace and love.

The Republicans have an agenda launching and paying for this petition initiative.

It has to do with winning elections, which is, after all, what political parties are all about.

Behind all the Republicans' high dudgeon over this one quarter or one cent tax increase is the fact that, in 2020, there are two county commission seats up for election – the seat held for 19 years by Portune, who is battling a return of cancer and is retiring; and Driehaus, the former state representative who is now president of the board.

Both Democrats, of course.

So who are the Republicans putting forward as the public face of the tax repeal campaign?

That would be Andy Black, the Indian Hill businessman who is running for Portune's seat and could use a nice boost in his visibility because most voters wouldn’t know the difference between Andy Black and Andy Capp.

The Republicans are shooting to put this issue on the March 2020 primary election ballot, which they hope will bring out more conservative, GOP voters to the polls to an election where they have no real drama to draw them out otherwise.  

And the GOP is betting that the exposure Black gets in the petition initiative campaign will carry over into November when Black will face a Democrat – possibly Alicia Reece; possibly someone else – in the general election.

After all, Hamilton County has become a reliably blue county and it is safe to say that, in November 2020, Democratic voters will come out in droves to throw Donald Trump out of office and replace him with their fill-in-the-blank presidential candidate.

The Hamilton County GOP will need all the help they can get.

Alex Triantafilou, the GOP county chair, makes no bones about it – this petition drive could do good things for the party.

"We intend to stay relevant in this county,'' Triantafilou told WVXU. "If fighting for what we believe in ends up with a higher Republican turnout, I'm all for that."

So, there you have it. Democrats and Republicans, each with their own agenda.

The fact is that in this county, neither party is very good at being sneaky.

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.