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Business leaders push compromise bi-state tax plan

By Matt Hackworth

KANSAS CITY – Kansas City's chamber of commerce is endorsing a plan for a new, bi-state sales tax. The last bi-state tax was the first such levy in the nation, and was used to re-model Union Station. The latest bi-state plan has been contentious, pitting cities against suburban communities and sports groups against arts interests. K-C-U-R's Matt Hackworth reports.

Over the last few months, debate swirled over what form the bi-state tax would take. Sports interests led a fight to use the funds to renovate the Truman Sports Complex, while arts supporters wanted a bi-state tax dedicated to their cause. Kansas City Chamber of Commerce President Peter Levi says his group struck a compromise, with a plan to divide money evenly between sports and the arts.

"It is a proposal that will keep major league sports in our community for 25 years. It will help to build a world-class performing arts center and create a new climate for growth in the arts community across our metropolitain area. That is our ultimate goal."

The plan is for a quarter-cent sales tax hike that would last long enough to pay off $380 million in bonds used to renovate Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums. An initial $50 million would help build a performing arts center, with the remainder funding arts programs. Both construction projects are in Kansas City, which made some suburban lawmakers leery to support a second bi-state plan. The chamber's Levi says representatives from both sides of the state line would sit on new commissions appointed to oversee the tax, and the projects it'd pay for in the arts and sports worlds.

"There is a requirement that a majority of the commissioners on both sides of the state line have to approve any of the expenditures. So, there is a tremendous balance to ensure both sides of the state line agree that these are the proper ways of utilizing the bi-state funds as approved by the voters."

A bi-state arts commission would dole out money to applicants who apply for grants from the arts part of the tax. That could send money back to suburban counties, where support for the new bi-state plan has waned. But it isn't clear if more accountability and more money will strike enough of a balance to appeal to voters and legislators in Platte, Clay, Jackson, Wyandotte and Johnson Counties. Johnson County Commission Chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh says she's encouraged by the improvements but will wait to make a decision.

"From where it was to where it is now we have come a long way. I would like to see the three large counties be required to pass it, so that you don't overly burden if only two counties were to pass it."

The tax would only be collected from counties where voters approve it, and Chamber president Peter Levi says there is no contingency plan if only a couple of counties pass the tax. The big challenge now is to convince county legislators to put the matter on a public ballot. Clay County Presiding Commissioner Carol McCaslin says leaders in her community weren't included in any planning for the chamber's bi-state proposal. Clay County voters are normally cool to elections on city matters, and McCaslin says a bi-state tax may be a tough sell to voters in her area.

"They're still gonna have to market it to the people in clay county, and to platte county, and to Wyandotte county, which didn't participate last time. You know, if they want support from them at all, they're really gonna have to get out and have some town hall meetings and reach out to these voters."

If county governments agree to put the plan to a vote in the coming months, voters could see the plan on an already busy November ballot.

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