State Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. sat down at Hardee’s last week and although tempted by the chili-smothered Thickburger, opted instead for the version topped with bacon and cheese. Total cost: $4.62. Multiply that by 1 percentabout 4 centsand McKissick would pay $4.65 for his lunch if Durham County voters approve the prepared meals tax Nov. 4.
Last summer, McKissick played an instrumental part in shepherding legislation through the senate that authorized the ballot referendum on the meals tax. And if he has any regrets about potentially costing Durhamites an extra penny per every dollar spent on prepared food, then he’s doing a fantastic job of hiding it.
“For the first time, the entire delegation from Durham was united in the idea that seeking the authority from the state to put this question before the people was what was best for the county,” he explains. “And I was not going to stand in the way of that.”
Doing so, however, may have cost him the support of a key figure in Durham politics, Lavonia Allison, and driven her to ally with other opponents of the tax, notably the recently formed Durham Citizens Against the Food Tax (DCAFT), which, ironically, is based in Raleigh.
“It’s simply unacceptable that Durham citizens would have to pay more to eat,” says Dallas Woodhouse, treasurer of the DCAFT and director of the North Carolina branch of Americans for Prosperity, an arch-conservative, anti-tax political committee based in Washington, D.C. “This is simply a tax on necessity to fund luxury.”
In Allison, longtime chairwoman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, some Durham citizens have found a sympathetic ear. Earlier this month, Allison, wearing a white straw hat and making frequent use of the royal “we,” stood alongside Woodhouse and Paul Stone of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association at a press event to announce her opposition to the tax.
“We have always been concerned with taxes that hurt persons of low income more than they hurt persons of high income,” she said. “Cultural amenities are nice, but this is just the wrong time and the wrong priorities.”
Allison, who declined to be interviewed for this article, went on to announce that the Committee won’t take an official position on the tax until Oct. 11, when the group will vote on its endorsements on the slate of candidates and ballot referendums.
Yet at the Committee’s downtown Durham offices, anti-meals tax yard signs and other DCAFT-related materials are available.
Although Allison’s opposition to the meals tax is well known, some Committee members are shocked that she has associated with the conservative Americans for Prosperity.
“I think that Dr. Allison will ally herself with any group she finds politically advantageous,” says Harris Johnson Sr., a longtime Committee member.
For his part, McKissick doesn’t believe that his actions in helping the prepared meals tax onto the ballot have soured his relationship with Allison, though he admits that he won’t know until Oct. 11, when he learns whether the Committee has endorsed him. McKissick, who was appointed to the senate after the death of Jeanne Lucas, is running to keep his seat.
“We still have a positive working relationship,” he says. “I continue to have the greatest respect for Dr. Allison”
Others were less charitable about Allison.
“I think she’s being used,” says the Rev. Melvin Whitley, a Committee member who favors the tax. “This group [Americans for Prosperity] doesn’t know anything about Durham. This has more to do with people coming here and using our services and facilities and not helping to pay for them.”
Whitley, who attended the DCAFT press conference, complained loudly that the group is attempting to “dictate what goes on in Durham.”
“Who are they to tell us what projects are significant or frivolous?” he asked.
Documents filed with the Board of Elections last month indicate that DCAFT is bankrolled entirely by Americans for Prosperity, which contributed $3,327 worth of in-kind donations in September. It was the only contribution listed for the last reporting period. The next campaign finance reports are due Oct. 27.
On the Americans for Prosperity’s board of directors is Art Pope, a man The News & Observer once called “the powerful patron of the political right in North Carolina.” Pope, a retail shopping magnate from Raleigh, founded the conservative John Locke Foundation. He routinely funnels thousands of dollars into the coffers of North Carolina’s Republican political candidates; last year he contributed at least $4,000 to Durham mayoral candidate and former city councilman Thomas Stith.
But conservatives are not the only players in the meals tax drama.
The People’s Alliance, a progressive and historically sales tax averse political action committee, recently endorsed the prepared meals tax, but only after what Alliance President Chris Kukla says was a spirited debate.
“It’s fair to say that there was some strong resistance,” he says. “People were being asked not just about the tax itself, but the projects that it funds. If our debate was at all indicative of what how the greater public feels, it’s going to be an uphill climb for the tax supporters.”
Friends of Durham, a conservative political action committee, hasn’t announced if it will endorse the tax, but Durham Commissioner Ellen Reckhow hopes that its members can be persuaded to support it.
“Every endorsement is important,” she says. “With the referendum on the ballot during a presidential election, it changes the dynamic of the race. Many of the people voting know little about local issues. They’re largely voting because of the president and may not be acquainted with the fiscal situations that we’re in.”
If the referendum fails, McKissick says he won’t take it as a personal loss. “I’ve done my job,” he says picking through the remains of his bacon cheeseburger. “I helped get it in front of the people for a vote, and that’s the democratic way.”
McKissick declined to say how he will vote on the tax, explaining that, like most voters, he won’t decide until he’s had a chance to hear both sides make their case.
If the referendum fails, there will have to be other creative ways to fund Durham’s cultural amenities. “There are laundry list issues that are all immediate, that all need our attention, and will take time to resolve,” he says. “That’s the democratic way too.”