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I know that most of you are thrilled about me being here to report on developments at The Kansas City Star, where I worked for a mostly happy 36 years.

If I wasn’t here, a lot of you wouldn’t know about things like this:

Starting today, The Star has eliminated its Op-Ed page on Mondays. That means that henceforth on Mondays, we’ll only be getting one page of editorial content, instead of two.

The nub: The ever-shrinking Star gets even thinner on Monday, when it already hung in the air for several seconds before landing like a feather on the front lawn.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the lingo, the Op-Ed page is the page that is opposite the main editorial page, which, itself, is home to editorials written by editorial board members; letters to the editor; and Lee Judge’s editorial cartoon.

The Op-Ed page is where you find the syndicated columnists — Paul Krugman, David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, to name a few — along with excerpts from other papers’ editorials; syndicated cartoons; and commentaries submitted by local residents. (Usually, those run under the “As I See It” heading.)

In a puzzling move, I thought, the Monday reduction was made with no accompanying note or explanation. In the past, when The Star has made significant content changes, it has usually offered an explanation…like several years ago, when the paper eliminated the stand-alone Metro section and collapsed the local news into the A section.

The editors rationalized that by telling us we were going to get a heftier A section, chock full of news from everywhere. Gradually, of course, the A section drifted back to its customary page count (which varies one day to the next) and The Star saved money by using less newsprint.

I presume that’s what’s behind the new Monday reduction: cost saving.

But this time The Star didn’t bother to inform readers about the switcheroo. I guess I understand the rationale: There’s no way to put a pretty face on it, so why would you want to tell readers you’re giving them less?

Ah, but fortunately for you, my readers, JimmyC is here, watching like a line judge at Wimbledon.

As soon as I got to the editorial page today, I knew larceny was afoot.

On the plus side, the page featured two editorials that stretched from the top of the page to the bottom. From there, though, it went downhill. Instead of a half page of letters to the editor, which is not unusual, it featured one letter — bottom right — which was dubbed “Letter of the Week.” That letter, about the new Southwest High School plan, was laid out across two columns, instead of the customary one-column format for letters.

(Can hardly wait for next week’s “letter of the week,” I tell ya.)

Above the letter was a syndicated editorial cartoon, and above that, at the top of the page, was a column by public editor Derek Donovan. It was a banner day for Derek! He hasn’t had play like that on the editorial page for years!

…Despite the conspicuous format changes, I still wondered if, maybe, this wasn’t just an aberration — an odd circumstance that would be rectified next Monday.

So, I sent an e-mail to editorial page editor Miriam Pepper, inquiring about the change.

Didn’t hear back. Well, it’s summer, she’s probably on vacation.

Later, I sent an e-mail to managing editor Steve Shirk. I got an auto-reply saying he was out of the office this week.

Not to be denied, I donned my Sherlock Holmes disguise and worked my way into the bowels of The Star’s editorial operation. And there I got confirmation that it wasn’t temporary at all; alas, it’s permanent.

So, go ahead and cry your eyes out, readers. Mondays just got a little grimmer for us dead-tree-media folks.

One big Kansas City company, The Kansas City Star, and one big political organization, Freedom Inc., have taken terribly mistaken and irresponsible positions on Missouri’s proposed Amendment 7 — the three-quarter-cent sales tax for transportation.

The Star’s July 13 editorial endorsing Amendment 7 came as a big shock to me, especially coming a few days after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lambasted Amendment 7 as “an abomination.” The P-D editorial went on to say pointedly and correctly, “A general sales tax is the wrong way to fund transportation needs.”

Freedom Inc.’s endorsement also surprised me, but not as much as The Star’s, because it has longstanding political and financial ties to the Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, which is one of the biggest promoters of the tax. (The association has pumped more than $600,000 into the campaign committee working for Amendment 7 on Aug. 5.)

Let’s consider each endorsement and the politics behind each.

The Star 

My hopes for a Star recommendation against Amendment 7 got a boost when Lewis Diuguid, an editorial board member, wrote a piece on July 9, reporting that the AAA Midwest Traveler magazine had endorsed Amendment 7.

That was no surprise, of course, but Diuguid editorialized by saying that Missouri “has one of the lowest fuel taxes in the country.” And he added, “The sales tax is regressive and hurts low-income residents the most.”

That was an indicator to me that The Star would do the right thing.

The editorial board consists of six people — publisher Mi-Ai Parrish, editorial page editor Miriam Pepper and writers Yael Abouhalkah, Barb Shelly, Steve Paul and Diuguid. The publisher always has the final say and can overrule all the others, if he or she chooses to do so.

I don’t know how Parrish voted, but I would presume she voted to endorse. In its subsequent, limp-wristed endorsement, The Star said, “Approval of the higher state sales tax, for the first time, would make it possible to use large sums of Missouri dollars for public transit projects.”

Well, now, that’s just about as exciting a proposition as Kansas City getting the World Cup, isn’t it?

The editorial board also fell into the trap that proponents have set by contending that voters have shown a disinclination to raise the gas tax and, thus, the sales tax is the only way to go. “After years of inaction and previous defeats of other funding plans,” the editorial said, “Amendment No. 7 is the pragmatic way to meet the challenge” of transportation department funding.

Well, from what I’ve read, the last time a new transportation tax was on the statewide ballot was August 2002, when voters were asked to approve a four-cent-per-gallon gas tax and a half-cent sales tax increase. That went down to a nearly 3-1 defeat.

So, proponents’ suggestions that voters would prefer a sales tax to raising the gas tax — at 17 cents, the sixth lowest in the nation — are simply untrue.

…So, what happened inside the hallowed walls of The Star and why?

It’s this simple: The editorial board allowed itself to be seduced by a city-MoDOT agreement that would funnel $124 million in sales-tax revenue to Kansas City’s proposed streetcar expansion over the first 10 years of the new tax. The editorial board is so enamored of the streetcar project — the closest thing to “mass transit” that we would likely ever have — that it was willing to sell out to promoters of the most regressive type of tax there is.

…All of this makes me wonder how Diuguid voted in the endorsement meeting. And I wonder how he felt when he saw the other hands go up in favor of Amendment 7.

I hope he put up a fight.

Freedom Inc.

Last year, I fought arm in arm with Freedom against Jackson County’s proposed half-cent sales tax for “translational medical research.” We, along with other organized opponents, were able to help usher the proposal to an unprecedented voter thrashing — 86 percent “no” to 14 percent “yes.”

As that campaign was developing, I feared that the business community, which came up with that awful proposal, would be able to “buy” Freedom’s support by offering the east-side organization $100,000 or more to campaign for the measure.

But Freedom leaders, to their credit, listened to their constituents and took the principled position that a new sales tax was the wrong way to try to make Kansas City a medical research center. The organization came out strongly against the proposal, and it was a turning point in the campaign.

This time, I’m sorry to say, Freedom Inc. sold out to the Heavy Constructors, commonly called “the heavies.” They’re called that for more than the obvious contraction of their name. They bring a lot of political pressure to bear in any number of places, including the Missouri General Assembly, which voted to put Amendment 7 on the ballot.

I don’t know how much Freedom will be paid to campaign for Amendment 7, but I would guess at least $50,000.

Like The Star, Freedom came out with a lame rationale for its decision. Campaign literature to be distributed this week says:

“Better roads and bridges will create jobs and spur our economy…For the first time, minimum minority workforce requirements of 12.7 percent (and 6.9 percent female) on all highway construction contracts will be monitored and enforced by the Missouri Department of Transportation.”

Well, whoop-de-do…Seems to me that if those requirements haven’t been monitored and enforced all along, MoDOT hasn’t been doing its job, anyway. And that doesn’t do much for the credibility of the department, which would be getting about $6 billion in new revenue from the new sales tax.

And if the General Assembly had done the right thing and put a fuel-tax increase on the ballot, instead of a general sales tax, MoDOT should likewise pledge to monitor and enforce minority- and women-owned businesses’ share of transportation contracts.

A week from Tuesday, we Jackson County residents need to show The Star and Freedom Inc. how out of touch they are with their readers and their constituents.

I believe we — and voters statewide — are going to do just that.

no mo sales tax

 

 

 

 

I never thought I would find myself on the same side of an issue as Rex Sinquefield.

The multi-millionaire (maybe billionaire) from the St. Louis area is about as conservative and libertarian as a person can get.

His overall goal is to see state taxes restructured by dumping the state income tax and replacing it with a greatly expanded sales tax.

In other words, he would like to shift the tax burden from the wealthy to middle- and lower-income residents. His philosophy? Let those who are eating cake pay more for their cake, while my buddies and I — who make truckloads of money off our investments — get a nice break.

But on Amendment 7, Sinquefield opposes a new three-quarter-cent sales tax to raise more than $6 million over the next 10 years to finance an array of transportation projects.

It being his tax or choice, I’m not sure why he opposes it, but I suspect it’s because if Amendment 7 passed, voters would be less likely to approve the even-higher sales taxes that he envisions.

Kind of like Brad Bradshaw’s reasoning last year when he poured a couple of hundred thousand dollars of his own money into the successful effort to defeat Jackson County’s proposed translational medical research tax. The lawyer/doctor from Springfield favors a statewide sales tax for medical research, and if the county’s tax had passed, it would have made passage of a statewide tax extremely difficult.

rexs

Rex to the rescue

Sinquefield is president of the Show-Me Institute, an organization that says it is interested in “advancing liberty with responsibility.” The organization’s chairman is none other than Crosby Kemper III, executive director of the Kansas City Public Library system. (Might be the best damn library director the system has ever had.)

An article published today on the Show-Me Institute’s website took issue with some Amendment 7 proponents’ assertion that Missouri’s roads and bridges desperately need repair.

The writer, a man by the name of Joseph Miller, cited two foundation reports that ranked Missouri’s highway system as seventh and eighth best, respectively, in the nation.

Miller went on to say:

“MoDOT does have a funding problem, but there is time to select the right funding solution. There is no imminent crisis which would force us to accept an unfair, and economically unsound, transportation tax.”

You got it, Rex, this tax would be eminently unfair. So, let’s team up and beat the crap out of it on Aug. 5.

Then, I’ll take a good, long shower and go back to calling you the turd in the punch bowl.

Alliances can develop very quickly in politics.

Such is the case with me and Tom and Debra Shrout, St. Louis residents who head a campaign committee that is working against Amendment 7 on the Aug. 5 ballot. Until last Sunday, I didn’t who they were or what they were doing. But now we’re working closely, at a distance of 250 miles, to defeat Amendment 7.

Amendment 7 is the turd that the Missouri General Assembly and the “concrete cartel,” as Tom Shrout calls it, pushed onto the ballot in an effort to shift a significant part of transportation funding from dedicated revenue streams to a statewide general sales tax.

Before I introduce Tom and Debra, I want to tell you a little more about Amendment 30.

**

Section 30 of the Missouri Constitution states clearly that transportation projects are to be paid for with gas taxes, sales taxes on vehicle purchases, and vehicle license fees.

The idea — entirely logical — is for vehicle-related revenue streams to pay for transportation projects.

But the proponents of Amendment 7 want to flip logic onto its head. They want to change the constitution to impose a general 3/4 cent sales tax that all Missouri residents would pay, regardless of how much they use the roads. The proponents would increase the most regressive of all taxes — the one that hits hardest those least able to afford it.

And guess what? The truckers and trucking companies, which put the most wear and tear on state roads and highways, would get a pass.

That’s what I mean about trying to shift the burden…As was the case with Jackson County’s 2013 proposed sales-tax increase for medical research, the proponents of Amendment 7 want everyone else to buy the paint for their pretty picture.

We can’t let them get away with it!

The state Constitution offers a clear avenue for raising new transportation revenue: raising the state’s gas tax.

That tax has stood at 17 cents a gallon – sixth lowest in the nation as of last year — since 1996, or almost 20 years. If the Missouri General Assembly and the “concrete cartel” (essentially, the heavy constructors, the engineering companies and the materials suppliers) want to raise more money for transportation needs, they should come back to us with a proposal to raise the gas tax.

That’s the appropriate way to go. That’s the fair way to go.

**

CIMG3152Back to Tom and Debra. Their committee is called Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions. (In terms of creativity and clarity, that doesn’t hold a candle to my 2013 Committee to Stop a Bad Cure. Fortunately, victory or defeat probably won’t come down to the committee name.)

They have strong backgrounds in transit, particularly Tom, who in 2010 retired after more than 20 years as executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis.  Now, Tom and Debra own and operate a consulting company called Avvantt Partners, which focuses on organizing community support for improved public transit. One of their clients has been Jackson County, for which they worked on a transit education program.

CIMG3153Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions will be a low-budget operation. But it will get out its message. The Shrouts are planning on having at least one direct-mail piece to frequent voters in Kansas City and St. Louis, and they’re exploring the possibility of yard signs.

In addition, I helped make arrangements for the committee’s purchase of a killer billboard. For strategic reasons, I’m not going to divulge the location at this time, but I can tell you it gets about 90,000 impressions a week, and it’s going to get us a lot of votes.

Tom and Debra are also active on social media — a beast that is foreign to this “dead-tree-media” fellow.

**

Here’s a link to the web site of Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions(I hope you will consider making a contribution.)

To learn more about Tom and Debra, go to http://www.avvantt.com/

In the event we get yard signs, send me an e-mail at jim.fitzpatrick06@gmail. com and let me know if you’d like one.

Finally, let me leave you with this thought. In the medical-research campaign, I saw how logic and passion can overcome big money. We’ve got those two elements again, and I wouldn’t trade them for the millions of dollars that the concrete cartel is spending to try to bamboozle Missourians to vote for Amendment 7.

I’m one of many political activists who believe yard signs are a very effective campaign tool.

One candidate who is using yard signs to spectacular advantage this summer is former Kansas City Royals’ second baseman Frank White, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Jackson County Legislature.

White’s opponent in the Aug. 5 primary is Sherwood Smith, a retired Kansas City firefighter. Under normal circumstances — that is, without a former All-Star second baseman in the picture — Smith would be a formidable candidate. He presents and speaks well, and he has served as political director for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 42 and later as the first African-American president of the Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters.

Along with The Kansas City Star, the firefighters’ union is the best organized and most lethal political force in Kansas City. As former Mayor Charles B. Wheeler likes to say, “You can beat The Star, and you can beat the firefighters, but you can’t beat The Star and the firefighters.”

Not that they’re together that often, because The Star almost always opposes the firefighters, who generally are most concerned about union interests.

pat-oneill

O’Neill

But as I was saying, White’s yard signs are outstanding. Credit for the concept — the words “elect Frank White” inscribed in blue between the red seams of a baseball — goes to local p.r. and political consultant Pat O’Neill, of O’Neill Marketing & Event Management Inc. in Westport.

O’Neill, whose late father was also a gifted p.r. man, has many successful political campaigns under his belt. The biggest upset he was involved in occurred in 2002, when Wheeler, then out of office for 23 years, defeated then-state Rep. Henry Rizzo for the Democratic nomination for Missouri Senate and went on to be elected to a four-year term.

Why and how did Wheeler win? In my opinion, he had the best yard sign I’ve seen in 40 years around Kansas City politics.

Here it is:

Wheeler poster
That’s all that needed to be said about a man who has not been linked to any kind of impropriety during half a century on the political scene.

…Now O’Neill has Frank White as a client. And what do you do with a candidate like that — someone who just might have the second-highest name recognition in Kansas City, after the one and only George Brett?

You don’t have to introduce him to voters; you don’t have to put out a lot of “white papers” (although White has those); and you don’t have to raise a ton of money to promote him. In fact, when the first round of campaign finance reports were filed, Sherwood Smith had raised much more money than White.

What you do is put his name on a baseball and tell people he’s running for office. Let the words “Frank White” — sandwiched between the seams of a baseball — tell the story.

O’Neill put it this way: “My first thought (regarding strategy on signage) was, “Frank White’s running for something. Whatever it is, ‘Let’s elect!’ “

You’ve seen that sign…Everybody has. Here it is.

P1030988

Congratulations, Pat. As sure as the sun came up this morning, you’ve got a winner.

To me, the most galling proposal on the Aug. 5 ballot in Kansas City and across Missouri is the proposed 3/4-cent state-sales-tax increase for transportation.

Like a lot of tax-hike measures, it is tempting on the surface — $480 million annually for state transportation needs and $54 million a year for local road projects.

Projects to be financed — promised, anyway — include construction of a new Broadway Bridge in Kansas City and a third lane for I-70 between the outskirts of Kansas City and the outskirts of St. Louis.

The tax, if approved, would also direct about $14 million a year to the cost of expanded streetcar lines on Main, Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard and a MAX bus route on Prospect Avenue.

(If voters approve an expanded streetcar district Aug. 5, they would be asked later to approve a 1 percent sales-tax increase to finance the expansion. Because of the city’s agreement with the state, however, residents of the expanded streetcar district would pay only 1 percent more in sales taxes, instead of 1.75 percent more.)

no on sevenBut even with the “streetcar shuffle” this 3/4 cent sales-tax increase looks like a terrible deal for the average taxpayer.

Consider, first, that the main beneficiaries would be:

The trucking industry, which is most responsible for tearing up the highways and roads

– The heavy construction industry, which excavates the dirt and rock, grades the land and builds the roads

– Engineering firms, which design and engineer the projects

– Material supply companies, like those that provide cement and asphalt

The law firms that represent all the industries mentioned the above.

Under the name of a committee called Missourian for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, those special interests are going to pour several million dollars into their effort to pull the wool over the eyes of Missouri voters and convince them that a general sales tax is the best and only way to get better (and more) roads and bridges in Missouri.

It’s utter balderdash, I tell you.

A few points:

1) Implementing this tax increase requires amending the Missouri Constitution. Yes, amending the constitution! We would be voting to change the state constitution to allow the imposition — for the first time ever — of a general sales tax exclusively for transportation. I am no constitutional scholar, but amending the constitution to pave the way for a sales tax for better roads seems ridiculous. Four other proposed constitutional amendments are on the Aug. 5 ballot. They cover such areas as farming policies, gun rights and protecting electronic communications. It makes sense that they fall under the constitutional umbrella — but not a sales-tax increase for better roads.

2) The sales tax is the most regressive of all taxes. That is, it hits low-income people the hardest. Look at it this way: If a person with an annual income of $20,000 pays $1,000 in sales taxes in one year, the sales tax amounts to 5 percent of his or her income. But $1,000 in sales taxes on an income of $100,000 a year amounts to only 1 percent of income. Yes, people with higher incomes spend more than people in lower-income brackets, but in most cases the spending differential does not amount to a multiple of five times.

3) Missouri already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the country. The state currently charges a 4.225 percent statewide sales tax, while local governments add an average of 3.36 percent, according to the Tax Foundation, an independent tax-policy research organization based in Washington. The combined rate of 7.58 percent ranks Missouri 14th among all 50 states.

…The logical way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year to improve and add roads, highways and bridges is to raise the state gasoline tax.

The gas tax has stood at 17 cents a gallon (one of the lowest rates in the nation) since 1996.That’s almost 20 years! Raising it to 26 cents would generate an estimated $300 million more per year.

Hiking the gas tax is an entirely logical way to go because the more we use the highways and bridges, the more we should pay. And the more that Big Trucks tear up I-70, I-49 and our other interstates, roads and highways, the more they should pay.

But the trucking companies, the construction industry, the big engineering companies and the law firms that represent those industries want to stick this tax on all consumers, regardless of how much they use the roads.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has come out strongly against this proposal, and so has the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

To my astonishment, The Star this afternoon posted an editorial endorsing Amendment 7. Here’s the link.

The recommendations of Nixon and the Post-Dispatch are good, credible indicators, however, that Amendment 7 is a bad deal for Missouri taxpayers…On Aug. 5, let’s weigh in with a resounding “NO” vote on Constitutional Amendment No. 7.

The difference between an overarching presentation of a big story and a parochial one couldn’t have been clearer than in The Kansas City Star’s and The New York Times’ coverage today of developments in the world of for-profit colleges.

The contrasting coverage highlights the effects of the downturn of fortunes for most big-city daily newspapers.

Where we have landed, after all these years of the newspaper industry’s precipitous decline, is that readers of most metropolitan dailies’ print and online editions get cheated because they get a narrow, incomplete view of many stories with broad and deep implications.

Such is the case with the story of Corinthian Colleges Inc., one of the country’s largest operators of for-profit colleges and trade schools. One of Corinthian’s main brands is its Everest colleges, one of which is located at 92nd Street and State Line Road in Kansas City.

corinthianWith that backdrop, let’s take a look at The Star’s coverage of the U.S. Department of Education’s recent crackdown on Corinthian, which basically under-educates students and over-promises jobs, while relying on — and getting rich on — federal student aid that accounts for the vast majority of its revenue.

 

The Star

A locally written story on Page A-7 of today’s Star carries this headline: “Everest College to carry on despite sale.”

The headline clearly signals that the story’s focus is the fate of the 92nd and State Line school, not the national scandal surrounding for-profit colleges, especially Corinthian.

In his lead paragraph, staff writer Brian Burnes (a good hand whose work I formerly edited) reports that “Operations at Everest College in Kansas City will continue as usual…even though the facility is among the 85 schools currently listed as being for sale by its corporate parent, Corinthian Colleges Inc.”

The second paragraph goes like this:

“The first thing we wanted to make sure of is that all of our students were able to continue their education without any delay or additional costs,” said Kent Jenkins Jr., a national spokesman for Corinthian. “That is the case at Kansas City Everest.”

After reading those reassuring words, I guess Star readers are supposed to wipe their brows, jump up from their kitchen tables and say, “Well, thanks be to God!”

The only hint in Burnes’ 11-paragraph story of what has been afoot at Corinthian comes in the fourth paragraph:

“Last month Corinthian…announced that education officials had limited its access to federal funds after it failed to provide documents and other information. Critics had accused the corporation of altering student attendance information and job-placement rates.”

Note how Burnes backed into the unsavory aspect of Corinthian’s dealings. First, instead of stating the situation as fact, Burnes has Corinthian announcing that the education department had imposed sanctions. Second, he says critics had accused the corporation of wrongdoing.

Now, let’s take a look at the flip side of this story.

The Times

The paper’s leading editorial carries this headline: “Lessons of a For-Profit College Collapse.”

Well, now, collapse? That puts things in a whole new light, at least for me.

…Before going any further, I will readily acknowledge that what a writer can say in an editorial and what he or she can say in a straight news story varies greatly: One is opinion, the other is arm’s-length reporting.

Nevertheless, the contrast in basic information provided by The Times and The Star is jaw dropping.

Here, for example, is The Times’ factual description of  the Corinthian mess:

“Corinthian, which is being investigated by federal regulators and by several states, has finally come to a kind of reckoning. It has reached an agreement with the Department of Education to shut down or sell about 100 campuses during the coming months.” 

Burnes could have written essentially the same thing, but he didn’t. In addition, The Times didn’t back into the company’s difficulties; it let the investigators hand down the incriminating allegations:

“According to federal officials, the company refused to turn over data that would have allowed it to determine how well students were succeeding and actually admitted to falsifying job placement and or grade and attendance records at various locations.”

Falsified records? Compare that with Burnes’ words — “altering student attendance information…”

There’s more. The Times also cited a lawsuit filed last year by the California attorney general in which the a.g. alleged that Corinthian “deliberately singled out low-income single parents who lived near the poverty line, urging recruiters to focus on ‘isolated’ people who had ‘low self-esteem.’ “

In sum…

The Times’ editorial leads me to believe that the operators of Corinthian Colleges Inc. are a bunch of scheming, greedy bums. Burnes’ story, on the other hand, makes it look like Corinthian administrators merely hit a speed bump.

Pretty bad, wouldn’t you agree?

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