Portune's Lessons in Futility

It's difficult to resist the urge to tell Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, "I told ya so." Portune made a big deal a few weeks ago of his teaming up with his colleague, County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, to devise a solution for the looming def

Jan 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm

It’s difficult to resist the urge to tell Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, “I told ya so.”

Portune made a big deal a few weeks ago of his teaming up with his colleague, County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, to devise a solution for the looming deficits in the county’s stadium account. That account pays for debt incurred when the county agreed to build new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals.

Much like President Obama at the national level, Portune was enamored of his bipartisan approach to the problem: Portune is a Democrat, while Hartmann is a Republican. And, just like Obama, he doesn’t have much to show for it.

Portune and Hartmann constitute a majority on the three-member commission. The other member, Commission President David Pepper, is a Democrat who wants to reduce — not eliminate — a property tax rebate promised to voters when they approved a half-cent increase to the sales tax in 1996 that was supposed to pay for the stadiums. (Because tax revenues didn’t meet the rosy estimates, they’re not enough to cover the stadiums’ debt service.)

But Portune and Hartmann didn’t want to reduce the popular property tax rebate. Although it only provides about $50 annually to the average homeowner, it does provide much more to people who own lavish houses in places like Hyde Park, Blue Ash and Indian Hill. Not surprisingly, that’s where people who are large campaign contributors — like attorney Stan Chesley, Cintas CEO Dick Farmer and the Lindner family — live.

So the political odd couple began crafting various alternate proposals to cover the deficit.

First, Portune and Hartmann proposed delaying the county’s required payments to Cincinnati Public Schools. The school board rejected the idea even before the pair had brought it before the commission for a vote.

Strike one. Then, Portune and Hartmann proposed asking state lawmakers to allow Hamilton County to impose a cigarette tax, one of the few taxes that remains popular with voters. Most of the region’s delegation nixed that idea even before it had been formally introduced.

Strike two. (Some unsolicited advice to commissioners: Ask the people your plan relies on if they’re game to participate before announcing it to the public.)

Last week Portune proposed temporarily raising the county’s sales tax yet again. Under his options, a 0.25 percent sales tax increase would be imposed for 10 years, which would raise $29 million annually; or a 0.5 percent increase for five years, which would raise $58 million annually.

Although public hearings are scheduled for Feb. 10 and Feb. 17 on the proposal, it has no chance of passage. That’s because both Hartmann and Pepper are opposed. We can almost hear Portune saying, “Et tu, Greg?” Strike three. A sales tax is regressive, meaning it impacts the poor more than it does other people. We’d much rather see the property tax rebate reduced and take a little more from the wealthy than put the disadvantaged among us further into a hole.

Portune is usually a pretty smart guy, so we’re left to wonder why he’s pursuing this course of action. The best-case scenario, as near as we can figure, is he wants residents to speak out in favor of reducing the property tax rebate so he has some political cover for that choice. Fearful of the political reaction, Portune clearly wants to avoid the appearance of raising taxes at any cost.

In spring 2007, Portune sided with Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. and wanted the County Commission to use its authority under the law to unilaterally increase the sales tax by a half-cent to pay for a new jail. Outraged voters launched a referendum effort and collected enough signatures to put the tax hike on the ballot. That fall, it was easily overturned at the polls.

Shortly before his last election, in 2008, Portune fretted about the jail tax backlash. He erected large campaign signs at highway exits that trumpeted there hadn’t been any tax increases during his tenure. Worse, Portune cut a deal with Democratic and Republican party leaders to ensure he wouldn’t face GOP competition in his race, in return for not fielding a Democratic challenger in Hartmann’s separate commission race.

The net result is that Democrats lost their best chance in nearly a half-century to win all three commission seats. Apparently Portune likes putting his own interests ahead of the party’s.

Time is running out: Commissioners must craft a plan to cover the stadium deficit by this fall at the latest. The account is facing a $13.8 million deficit this year, which will grow to $25 million in a few years.

Portune served multiple terms on Cincinnati City Council in the 1990s, before jumping to the commission in 2000. He’s now serving his third commission term. Portune obviously knows a thing or two about winning elections, so he should show some leadership by reading the handwriting on the wall, reducing the property tax rebate and begin preparing for his campaign accordingly.

Oh, and Portune can see if Republicans will be so accommodating as to not field a candidate against him in 2012.


With Tea Party devotees still making news, a friend recently reminded me of a Wall Street Journal article that puts the kibosh on one of their most cherished myths since the 2008 financial collapse.

One of the Teabaggers’ favorite tactics was tapping into the anger over the number of foreclosed homes and the sub-prime mortgage crisis, to battle proposed bailouts for homeowners. That led to signs at protests like, “Honk if I’m paying your mortgage.” Never mind that it was unscrupulous lenders that caused the crisis.

The net result of the Tea Party’s misguided fury at the time was many homeowners didn’t get assistance while major banks got away with raiding the national treasury. Many months later, Teabaggers finally have focused on the bank bailouts. A day late and a dollar short, guys.

If Teabaggers had done their research, they would’ve realized it was affluent homeowners that were more likely to be delinquent on their mortgages. As Nick Timiraos finds in a January 2009 WSJ piece, about 6.9 percent of prime “jumbo” loans were at least 90 days delinquent, compared to just 2.1 percent in delinquencies for non-jumbo prime loans that qualify for backing by government agencies.

We’ll start taking the Tea Party movement more seriously when it starts supporting candidates who propose cracking down on corporate influence on government, even if those candidates are Democrats, Greens or progressives.

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