I’m afraid it’s almost inevitable that Missouri voters will approve Proposition A a week from Tuesday.
At its core, Prop A is an insidious scheme designed to appeal to voters’ selfish inclinations at the expense of Kansas City and St. Louis, which make the state the special place that it is.
I’ve often quoted former mayor and now-Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who used to rally the troops at City Hall by saying, “This isn’t some podunk town along I-70; this is Kansas City!”
But if Kansas City and St. Louis lose their one-percent earnings taxes and falter badly because of it, the podunk element will grow in prominence, and the urban dimension will diminish.
The podunk element — my apologies to rednecks across the state — is going to vote in full force for Prop A, which would eliminate the prospect of an earnings tax anywhere in the state except Kansas City and St. Louis.
Then, it will come down to this: If Kansas City and St. Louis want to retain their earnings taxes, they will have to hold renewal local elections every five years. The tax is applied to the net profits of corporations in the two cities and to the wages of individuals who either work or live in those cities.
What should deeply concern Kansas City residents is that the e-tax generates more than $200 million a year, about 36 percent of the city’s $560 million general fund.
And, by the way, here’s one of the main reasons Mayor Mark Funkhouser should be given his walking papers: Late last year he said he was “open” to the idea of eliminating the earnings tax. He later came to his senses, but the mere fact that he was willing to entertain the notion of eliminating the e-tax shows how far off beam he is.
On Sunday, The Star had an excellent front-page story — “Whither city services?” — that, I hope, will make Kansas Citians more aware of the nature of the threat posed by elimination of the earnings tax.
The story, written by longtime City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley and intern Seth Putnam, addressed, among other things, a so-called “Doomsday List” of cuts the city might have to make if the earnings tax goes away.
Included on the list were $58 million from the Police Department and $20 million from trash collection, curbside recycling, bulky-item pickup and leaf and brush services.
Do you remember, several years ago, when the raging debate about the earnings tax was whether city residents were entitled to free trash bags indefinitely?
I dare say, many people would welcome the return of that debate, instead of the current issue of whether to do away with the tax altogether.
Ironically, it’s outsiders, for the most part, who are agitating for repeal of the earnings tax.
The chief chef, the man who concocted this nasty stew, is Rex (Down the Drain) Sinquefield, a multi-millionaire who apparently lives in Osage County, near Jefferson City, but has strong ties to St. Louis.
Sinquefield is president of a non-profit organization called the Show-Me Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank. On its web site, the institute says that its work “is rooted in the American tradition of free markets and individual liberty.”
The group’s chairman is R. Crosby “Chris” Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library. Kemper and Sinquefield have argued for years that the earnings tax hurts growth and employment.
OK, maybe he’s not motivated by self-interest. But he sure is posing a threat to Missouri’s two biggest cities. So far, according to a recent Kansas City Star article, Down the Drain has spent nearly $11 million of his own money to get Prop A on the ballot and fuel the campaign against it.
The assistant chef, working for Prop A on our side of the state, is former Missouri Republican chairman (Knock On) Woody Cozad, a lawyer who lives in Platte City. Cozad is a regular panelist on the KCPT program “Ruckus.”
A couple of years ago, describing Republicans, Knock On Woody said, “We don’t like government in general.”
Down the Drain obviously shares that philosophy, and, so, his and Cozad’s approach with Prop A essentially is, “Let’s put a big hole in the financing of city government so there will be a lot less of it.”
Strategically, I must admit, Down the Drain has hatched a brilliant plan. By attacking the earnings tax statewide — and pitting rural against urban — he’s given himself an odds-on chance of winning. Why would the vast majority of outstate Missouri voters have a very strong reason to vote “no”?
A big incentive for outstate residents is that not only does it not affect them (as long as they don’t care about the stature of the state’s two biggest cities, anyway), it would prevent an earnings tax from ever being visited upon them.
For the earnings tax to survive in Kansas City and St. Louis, then, it will come down to local elections next year. Earnings-tax proponents will have the challenging job of trying to convince voters to be unselfish and to think, first and foremost, about what kind of city they want and what kind of municipal services they want.
Two recent letters to the editor in The Star framed the issue very well.
In an Oct. 15 letter, Mack Tilton of Kansas City called Proposition A “a trick,” with the trick being that “if we want to keep the tax we’d be asked to decide again every five years.”
“It would be very hard,” he continued, ” for the city to borrow money or make any long-term plans knowing that a primary source of its income would be challenged every five years.”
In other words, it would be more difficult for the city to commit to big projects like development of the Power & Light District, which has helped resurrect downtown and keep Kansas City on the map as a convention destination.
Last Thursday, Joel Pelofsky, a former city councilman and former Kansas City school board member, wrote: “The fact that people who do not live in Kansas City but work here and pay the tax is only fair. Many of the city services benefit them, as do cultural and entertainment facilities maintained by tax revenues.
“Nobody likes to pay taxes,” Pelofsky concluded, “but it is a reasonable price to pay for living in a great city.”
If you live in Kansas City and you want to see it continue to grow and prosper, I urge you to vote “no” on Prop A next week. But, more important, be ready to vote “yes” on retention of the e-tax next spring.
You can’t say this about many taxes, but it’s a beautiful thing.