No last-minute campaign blitz planned for Cedar Rapids local-option tax supporters

Low-key approach won't change before election; opponents say 'big money' behind pro-tax effort

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In less than a week, residents of Cedar Rapids will go to the polls to vote on a flood protection system for both sides of the Cedar River. But the current campaign for and against extending the one cent local option sales tax (LOST) is very different than the one that fell a few votes short just last May.

The Linn County Auditor’s Office reports receiving 2,224 absentee ballots back for the March 6 election as of Monday night.  In the vote last May, a total of 3,718 people cast absentee ballots.  The auditor’s office estimates the final absentee tally will fall at least 20 percent short of the number seen for the last option tax extension vote.

In addition, option tax supporters conducted 20 neighborhood forums leading up to that first vote last year.  The forum and debate total, to date, is zero.

The group called CREST (Cedar Rapids Extended Sales Tax) is behind the vote “yes” campaign this time.  And members say keeping it a low-key vote was part of an overall plan -- one that won’t change in the final week leading up to the election.

Another difference is dollars.  The 2011 LOST extension campaign brought in a flood of money, with supporters raising about $500,000.  Gary Ficken, one CREST organizer, estimates the campaign this time will generate about $100,000 in donations, or 20 percent of the 2011 total.  Group members plan no extensive media advertising and will send only a limited number of direct mail fliers to voters.

Linda Seger, a CREST member and neighborhood activist, said a big campaign wasn’t needed for the second time around.  “We feel the public has all the knowledge they need about what has taken place in the past and what we want to do,” Seger said.

“Yes” supporters will operate a phone bank calling supporters to get out the vote up till the last minute.  They’ve also concentrated on getting absentee ballots ahead of time.   But the “low profile” campaign even extended to debating the issue.

The Cedar Rapids Free Press group organized a debate on the local option tax extension for Wednesday, Feb. 29.  Members of CREST and the city decided not to take part.

Lisa Kuzela, one organizer of the anti-extension tax group “We Can Do Better,” said “their campaign is being funded by the big money people.  Ours is the true grass roots, so it’s very difficult to raise money.”

But another CREST member, Bob Schaffer, said supporters saw no reason to take part in a debate organized by opponents.

“Why bother debating?” Schaffer said. "The message is out there.  We tried to make it very clear to let people know what our position is.  Why debate facts? The facts are out there.”

Tax extension supporters believe they fell short last May by pushing a 20-year tax that included other spending besides flood protection along the Cedar River.  Supporters say they didn’t want to make that mistake this time, and offered a 10-year extension with a more streamlined campaign effort to match.

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