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Politics, Elections and Government

Both Sides Abandon Kansas City Sales Tax Ballot Questions

There have been no ads promoting the taxes and no campaign opposing them, but there are two questions going before Kansas City, Missouri, voters on Nov. 4.

So why are they on the ballot? Questions 1 and 2 are the legacy of a transit activist and a 3-year court battle. The 1/4-cent and 1/8-cent sales taxes are the ruins of Clay Chastain's successful 2011 light rail initiative petition drive.

Although 4,000 voters signed petitions for the vast transit plan, Councilman Ed Ford says the city refused to put the plan on the ballot because city attorneys believed it violated the Missouri constitution. Ford says that is because on its face the proposal indicated that the taxes proposed would only pay for part of the plan.

The refusal didn’t go over so well with activist Chastain, who sued the city and partly won. The city was ordered to submit the matter to the voters – but not in a way either side expected.

The Missouri Supreme Court, to everyone's surprise, ruled that only the taxes themselves were required to go on the ballot and that there was no obligation to include any description linking them to a particular plan or project.

The city saw the ruling as a ballot language mandate and as an opportunity to avoid associating itself with the Chastain transit proposal. The two sales tax measures appear on the ballot with only the vague description that one is for “capital improvements” and the other for “transportation.”

Exasperated, Chastain tried to get the council to pass a resolution promising to spend the money for a light-rail-based transit plan.

“The City Council declined to do that because we're not going to take ownership of a plan we don't think is economically feasible,” says Ford.

The council expects the vague tax proposals to fail. And both the council and Chastain know that if either passes, the city will have complete say-so over how any resulting revenue would be spent for the 25-year tax duration. Chastain says it would essentially give the city "a $1.25 billion blank check over 25 years to use for whatever project they wanted to.”

And that is why, he says, he reversed course.

“I couldn't see asking to vote for something I thought was unconstitutional," says Chastain. "So the only recourse I had was to tell everybody – which upset my supporters – that we were going to have to urge people to vote against these two ballot questions, because it's not in the public interest."

Councilman Ford says that means the two sales taxes have a rare distinction among ballot issues: Both the original instigator and the City Council oppose the taxes and there is, as far as he knows, no civic organization that is advocating a “yes” vote.

If by some quirk of fate one or both of the sales taxes should pass, Ford predicts what he calls "a real feeding frenzy at City Hall" despite the fact that the mayor has advocated not collecting the taxes if they pass.

"If it passes," says Ford, "if I can put seven votes together to bring some money to road projects that I think are important for the city,  maybe a Max bus line for Prospect ... North Oak. I imagine you'll see a number of us seeing if there's seven votes."

What the councilman really expects to happen is for the questions to fail by at least an 80-20 margin.

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