Are zoo denizens living better than we humans, or are we humans starting to feel like caged animals? Credit: Edd Prince

“The animals will be living better than the humans!” So complained more than one caller on Angela Hill’s March 13 radio show on WWL.

The guest that afternoon was Ron Forman. The head of the Audubon Nature Institute was making himself available to tout a 50-year millage proposition designed to fund improvements at the zoo, aquarium, and other Audubon properties. Forman said the new revenues were necessary for Audubon to make world-class upgrades to its aging facilities. With more funding, his team could build new attractions so children could discover “the beauty of life.”

Forman’s pitch fell flat with callers, as it did with voters two days later. The Audubon millage initiative lost by a stunning 30 percent margin. Electoral outcomes like that deserve close attention.

Keith Hardie will appear at The Lens’ Breakfast with the Newsmakers event, Thursday at 8 a.m.Details | RSVP

So who killed the Audubon tax? A recent Advocate story raised the question, and quoted computer consultant Jeff Thomas who credited his email newsletters for sparking what he described as a “movement” against the millage. Lawyer and Lens op-ed contributor Keith Hardie also appeared in the article, and claimed the tax initiative failed in part because it was geared toward enhancing a tourist attraction rather than addressing the everyday outdoor needs of locals.

Thomas and Hardie were instrumental in energizing opposition to the tax. They distilled and disseminated key arguments against it. They questioned the 50-year term of the millage, the lack of public oversight on Audubon Institute spending, and why a private entity must command decades of millage inflows. Via email and social media, Thomas and Hardie stoked a grassroots wildfire that seemed to move public opinion dramatically in the days before the election, despite Audubon’s massive full-spectrum all-star marketing effort.

Not to diminish Thomas and Hardie’s activism and arguments, but perhaps there was a deeper political current at play, something beyond the public’s eager acceptance of arguments against a zoo millage.  In my view, this excerpt from The Times-Picayune’s election post-mortem cuts closer to the heart of the matter (emphasis mine):

But any new plan could run into another buzz saw of angry voters. Forman framed Audubon’s electoral rejection as a symptom of a general “anti-tax” sentiment in New Orleans and in the nation. But opponents said Audubon had overplayed its hand and undersold its long-range vision at a crucial time when much of cash-strapped New Orleans is counting every penny.

Wide swaths of the public feel increasingly squeezed by taxes, fees and the costs of basic living. Now they feel broke. There’s too much “month” left at the end of each paycheck, as the quip goes, and people are getting cranky. Politicians who would hit them up for more dough do so at their peril.

In recent years everything from property taxes to parking ticket fees have increased. But the biggest factor in the general discontent seems to be that housing costs have skyrocketed while incomes have stagnated.

Curbed NOLA, a web site on local real estate trends, picked up on a study showing that rents have risen sharply compared to income and are now well outside the advised bounds of affordability for most New Orleanians. You don’t need a degree in economics to know that’s an unsustainable dynamic. Even more revealing, I thought, was a Curbed NOLA article from April 9 that showed “What $1200/month can rent you in New Orleans.” Not much, apparently, if you’re looking for something decent with more than one bedroom.

Again, all due credit to Hardie and Thomas, but perhaps instead of igniting a new movement, they actually tapped into public discontent that was already simmering. There have been earlier signs of voter unease. In December 2012 chronic voters rejected a proposed 911 service charge by a two-to-one margin, defying Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other city officials who supported it. And who can forget last year, when the Crescent City Connection toll renewal went down in flames, despite widespread (early) support from officials.

Different factors combine in every election. But perhaps a widespread cash-strapped feeling among the electorate has become a strong common denominator. When it came to the Audubon millage, Hardie and Thomas provided the arguments that helped channel the electorate’s vague unease. They gave voters “permission,” in a sense, to get righteously angry about a zoo tax promoted by beloved New Orleans luminaries such as Archie Manning and Irma Thomas (not to mention pictures of cute penguins).

For all the solid arguments against the Audubon millage, let’s consider the possibility that the millage defeat was part of a deeper trend, and I think it is borne more of dire household necessity than some ideological impulses aligned with the Tea Party. Family budgets have been nibbled from all sides by fees and walloped by higher rents or property taxes. Incomes haven’t kept pace. Residents have a gut reaction against committing themselves to paying even more. Some can’t afford another dime, and those who can wonder where it will end if they don’t take a stand.

After hearing Forman on the radio show that afternoon I sensed the millage would be defeated. Initially I laughed at the radio callers who begrudged improving the living conditions for zoo animals. I wrote off their arguments as emotionally overwrought. But after a bit of thought, I took their comments another way. They were in effect saying, “Hey, I feel like a caged animal myself — surrounded, out of sorts, a little desperate. You wanna poke me again? Just try it.”

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...