Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Message in a jail vote

For the third time in nine years, Pulaski County voters yesterday rejected a proposed special sales tax to expand and operate the county jail. Now, the county and municipal governments have a fresh mandate to be more innovative and more cooperative to keep communities safe.

Every victory has a thousand parents, every defeat is an orphan. Who can say exactly what turned most voters off? Was it reflexive opposition to taxes? Was the tax rate too much? Were voters angry at county government and its profligacy, as the Arkansas Democrat Gazette characterized the situation in a relentless editorial campaign over the past two weeks? (The paper published four editorials — count them, four! — on election day.) We do not think the big newspaper’s heavyhanded opposition and sometimes uninformed attacks were the critical factor. Our observation has been that its endorsements hurt as much as they help, especially in the city of Little Rock.

From the county’s standpoint, the results provided some comfort. The vote was considerably closer than the previous elections. Some 43 percent of voters, according to early returns, favored the tax. In 1997, a jail tax got only 37 percent of the vote, and in 2000, when the proposal was swallowed by other races on the general election ballot, it received only 35 percent.

The results might be close enough to encourage County Judge Buddy Villines and the quorum court to offer a smaller proposal — say, a one-eighth of 1 percent tax rather than a quarter of 1 percent — at the general election or another special election. But having delivered their verdict, voters would be apt to view that as arrogance. The county can profit from a little humility and accept the expression as final regardless of the final margin.

Alternative sentencing, including electronic home monitoring, will have to be increased, although the state government will have to supply some help. The legislature, alas, rarely provides rewards for the state’s biggest county, but every urban county in the state has a crisis, caused partly by the lack of capacity in state prisons and by improvident sentencing laws passed the past quarter-century.

All along, we believed a one-eighth of 1 percent tax would be sufficient to reopen 250 inmate beds that were closed to meet budget constraints last year and to expand the facilities, although considerably more gradually than the quarter-cent proposal that was defeated Tuesday. But the higher rate would have relieved Jacksonville, North Little Rock, Sherwood and Maumelle of their annual correctional subsidy to the county, which they could put to good use with crime-prevention programs.

Now, the county must insist that cities continue and even increase those subsidies, and the cities, while having their own budget crises, must oblige. The alternative is a further reduction in operating jail beds and a further increase in lawlessness.
That was not a message that voters were sending Tuesday.