By Catharin Shepard
North Carolina elections law might keep a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for Hoke County school construction off the table until 2016, unless Gov. Pat McCrory moves ahead with an unrelated proposal that could go before voters this November.
There is no countywide election scheduled for Hoke County this year, meaning there is no existing ballot for county residents to vote on the proposed half-cent sales tax increase. The county would have to create a ballot and pay to open county polling sites for the purpose of having citizens vote on the sales tax referendum, which goes against state law.
Under state General Statute 163-287, “Special elections; procedure for calling,” section (a), a county can only call for a special election to be held “at the same time as any other State or county general election,” or “at the same time as any other election requiring all the precincts in the county to be open.”
When asked about the issue, State Rep. Garland Pierce said that under the statute, the referendum apparently cannot go to a vote until 2016.
“It’s got to be on the ballot with the general election. It would not be on the ballot until 2016,” Pierce said.
Pierce, along with Rep. Ken Goodman, introduced a bill in the State House of Representatives seeking the state’s permission for the county to hold the sales tax referendum. House Bill 247, which is currently awaiting action from the House Committee on Finance, asks the General Assembly “to authorize Hoke County to levy an additional one-half cent sales and use tax” for the purpose of school construction and renovation. The money would go to pay for construction of a third campus at Hoke High and additional classrooms at other county schools.
Even if the legislation passes the General Assembly, “you still couldn’t put it on the ballot of 2015,” Pierce said.
The text of HB-247 states that “the election shall be held in accordance with the procedures of G.S. 163-287.”
The only local election scheduled for 2015 is a municipal race for three seats on the Raeford City Council, according to Hoke Board of Elections Director Caroline Shook. Only Raeford residents vote in that election, meaning elections officials wouldn’t ordinarily open the county voting precincts this year.
Although the text of the bill does not specify when the matter would go to a vote, Hoke County Schools Board of Education Attorney Nick Sojka said that the school board had intended for the matter to go to voters this November.
“The intention all along was for it to go to a vote this year,” he said.
Sojka said it had been his understanding from working with state officials that it could go through in the fall due to its status as an “advisory referendum,” not a special election to fill an elected office.
Hoke County Attorney Grady Hunt said that, either way, the county has to wait until the state legislature makes a final decision on the bill before it can take any action regarding a special election.
“I’ll just wait and see what happens with the legislation, the local bill, and if it passes, then we’ll look down the road,” he said.
Daniel Ettefagh, a senior legislative counselor who works with bill drafting for the state General Assembly, said that if the bill passes this year, the county would be able to hold the vote next year without having to get another bill through the legislature.
The other state stipulations include that a special election may be held “at the same time as the primary election in any even-numbered year” and “at the same time as a municipal general election, if the special election is within the jurisdiction of the municipality only.”
Could still go on ballot
A pending decision from the governor means that Hoke voters could still see the sales tax referendum on the ballot this fall.
McCrory announced last week that he is considering calling for a statewide special election this year. The special election would seek voters’ input on whether to allow the state to borrow between $2.4 and $2.8 billion to pay for road projects and state government buildings.
Legislation to schedule the bond referendum hasn’t been introduced yet, but reports suggest the issue will likely be introduced before the House of Representatives this week. The filing deadline is Thursday.
If the governor moves ahead to put the state issue to a vote this November, then it would require Hoke to open all county precincts, allowing the county commission to put the sales tax issue on the ballot, if they vote to ask the county elections board to do so.
Raeford and Hoke won’t hold a primary election at all this year because the only local race is for a non-partisan board.