‘A rare point of consensus’ — both city and parish voters pull the plug on CREATE

Photo by Travis Gauthier
Election Day voting underway at Acadian Elementary in Lafayette

The gist: Preserving CREATE was an uphill battle for supporters who staged a social media campaign to urge “no” votes on a ballot proposition to rededicate the property tax that supports the cultural economy initiative. While CREATE was generally thought to be more popular inside city limits than elsewhere in the parish, the rededication push won out decisively across the entire parish. 

Parish and city precincts voted “yes” at about the same clip, says Christie Maloyed, a professor of political science at UL. The rededication was supported by 52% of city voters — in effect ending CREATE — compared with 55% of voters elsewhere in the parish. It’s hard to get a clean picture of the breakdown because of the huge turnout of early voters, which are reported without precinct data. But 58% of early voters supported the rededication, which split the $500,000 property tax in two to pay for rural fire protection, and parish roads, bridges and drainage. 

“Anyway you slice it, it looks like a rare point of consensus between the city and the parish,” Maloyed says. 

It’s not uncommon for city voters to behave differently than elsewhere in the parish. A 2018 tax renewal supporting the parish library system was pushed through by overwhelming support from parish voters, while voters in city limits voted to keep the tax in place. The ill-fated school sales tax in 2017 was walloped by parish voters, but city voters broke at higher numbers for the tax. At least a narrow majority of city voters backed Carlee Alm-LaBar over Mayor-President Josh Guillory in 2019. A handful of precincts that straddle city limits throws a little uncertainty into the math. But the sense that city voters and parish voters had different priorities was a key driver of the Fix the Charter campaign that successfully created separate city and parish councils.  

CREATE was born into controversy. Former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux tacked the measure onto a drainage tax, outraging many voters who felt coerced into supporting the cultural economy tax. Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin, who advocated for the rededication, says his constituents didn’t reap the benefits of the program and watched it accumulate a fund balance while parish money problems mounted. 

“They’re paying for CREATE and they don’t have anything that’s benefiting from it,” Naquin says. That view inverts a refrain among CREATE supporters that the rededication would tax residents across the parish to pay for a service that only benefits unincorporated Lafayette, two years after voters there defeated a new tax proposed to pay for rural fire service. CREATE did fund some recreation projects in parish parks, but the initiative moved little money on the whole, not just outside city limits.

Saving the CREATE tax may not have saved CREATE. Guillory campaigned on shifting public dollars out of cultural investments, taking particular aim at CREATE. Once he was in office, the program was mothballed and Kate Durio, a Robideaux assistant who ran the initiative, left the administration. Guillory resisted calls to use the $890,000 accumulated in CREATE’s fund balance to plug budget holes that supported signature cultural programs like the Heymann Performing Arts Center and the Lafayette Science Museum. Ultimately, the councils and the administration agreed to use $300,000 in CREATE dollars to soften the budgetary blow on the science museum, which faced insolvency when Guillory stripped it of city funding. 

“I honestly take comfort in the fact that [Guillory] doesn’t have that money to waste,” Durio says. From her vantage point, the odds of survival were stacked against the program, which she maintains was still in its infancy. Faced with a hardening political message in local government that culture and recreation are not worth funding with public dollars, CREATE was swimming upstream, she says. Durio mostly expected the result. 

“I’m surprised that many people voted ‘no,’” she says. 

What happens now? Seventy percent of the CREATE millage will now fund rural fire protection. The other 30% will chip away at a parish infrastructure backlog in the tens of millions of dollars. About $500,000 of the CREATE balance remains, Parish Councilman Josh Carlson says, and there are no immediate plans for what to do with it. Naquin, meanwhile, is on a mission to shore up parish finances overall. He tabled a measure to propose a small parishwide sales tax to help parish government claw its way into financial stability. Naquin argues the funding pulled from CREATE, while small, will make a meaningful difference in improving fire ratings in the unincorporated areas. Both Naquin, a musician, and Carlson, who served on the Heymann Center board, push back on the assertion that ending CREATE is an assault on the arts. Given the dire financial situation in the parish budget, Carlson says, every bit counts. 

No, this doesn’t solve everything. But $500,000 goes a long way when there is very little money to begin with,” Carlson says. 

What to watch for? Whether private dollars do step in where public investment recedes. Guillory telegraphed a shift away from government funding for cultural programs, signing a pledge with arch-conservative backers to carve “nonessential” spending out of the budget, and that goes well beyond CREATE. But with the economy still broadly depressed by the pandemic, private dollars may not be able to pick up the tab.