Jay Nixon’s motives for placing a transportation sales tax on the August ballot remain unclear

06/01/2014 9:26 PM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

Gov. Jay Nixon talks coyly about why he chose the lightly attended August primary for a vote on raising billions in taxes.

So many issues were headed to Missouri ballots this year, the Democratic governor said, he had to split them between the primary and the general elections.

But why put the most monumental of the bunch — a massive tax to rebuild the state’s highways and transit systems — on the ballot that the fewest voters will cast?

“Nothing I do is random,” the governor said last week in Kansas City. “Everything you do as governor, you look at.”

Nixon promised elaboration “at a different time.”

Meanwhile, political insiders read the move as a shot to torpedo the tax. Some see Nixon’s play as a betrayal from a governor who’d earlier hinted at support of a tax boost to save the state’s crumbling transportation arteries.

While most political analysts see the August date as place where tax boosts go to die, they concede such political tactics represent an imprecise science.

Still, it was the hand Nixon could play. Missouri’s constitution says that the General Assembly can decide to put something up for a state vote, but the governor gets to choose when.

Nixon has never explicitly rejected the sales tax idea. In fact, last summer he called for a statewide vote for “levels of expenditures that are necessary to make sure that we have a solid transportation system in the future.” But recently he said raising the sales tax, combined with a $620 million tax cut passed into law despite his veto, could threaten the state’s credit rating.

The transportation plan would balloon the state’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to raise more than $5 billion over the next decade. That would mark the first statewide tax increase in 22 years. The money would repair roads and bridges across the state — including rebuilding most of Interstate 70 across the state — and give some money to urban transit operations.

It cleared the legislature with bipartisan support. The tax increase also enjoys the backing of factions often at odds with each other. Business organizations and labor unions — both groups that stand to benefit from the spike in government spending — are so eager to pass it they’re expected to put upward of $5 million into the campaign.

Yet now their fate has been thrown into a summer vote, not the one they expected.

Primary elections not only draw the fewest voters, they also attract more Republicans than Democrats. And they tend to pull in the most conservative, presumably most anti-tax, factions of the Republican electorate.

The governor also put two other items on the August ballot that might entice conservatives, especially, to the polls. One is intended to boost gun rights. The other would establish a “right to farm” and is seen as an effort to stymie animal rights laws.

Consider the last time Missouri had a summer primary in a nonpresidential election year, 2010. Roughly 900,000 people went to the polls. Republicans outnumbered Democrats nearly 2 to 1. In the general election, which attracted more than twice as many voters, the GOP edge fell to roughly 5 to 4.

“The governor put (the transportation sales tax) on the August ballot to make it harder to pass,” said James Harris, a Missouri Republican strategist. “It’s more Republican, more rural and more conservative than the general election audience.”

Political scientists have long known that primary turnouts tend to reflect a party’s extreme. They are typically the best-informed and most liberal Democrats or most conservative Republicans.

That could spell real trouble for the sales tax. The most habitual Republican primary voters are also the most opposed to higher taxes. The left wing of Democratic Party is probably the most willing to back higher taxes. But those most liberal voters tend to oppose sales taxes because the poor pay a disproportionate amount of their income to such surcharges.

“There are better ways to fund our very real construction needs,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, the executive director of Missouri Association for Social Welfare. “Our tax system is already regressive.”

Missouri’s current sales tax is 4.225 percent. But many cities and counties add their own sales taxes that push the effective rate in some areas above 10 percent.

The fairness of a tax boost probably will be decided by a small number of voters this year, even by primary standards.

The only statewide office on the ballot is for the low-profile office of auditor, a fluke born from the way terms are staggered. Incumbent Republican Tom Schweich faces no primary opponent, and the Democrats don’t have a candidate.

There’s no U.S. Senate race, and U.S. House contests are generating little buzz. Likewise, the races for state legislative seats include few truly contested affairs.

“You’re looking at maybe the lowest turnout in Missouri political history,” said Kansas City Republican political consultant Jeff Roe. “Turnout goes up as money is spent and contrast is built. There’s none of that anywhere in this election.”

One analyst projected that as few as 700,000 people might vote in August.

Driving up that turnout won’t be easy.

“It’s easier (to pass a tax) if people are already going to the polls to convince them that maybe it’s worthwhile to raise their taxes,” said state Sen. John Lamping, a suburban St. Louis Republican who opposes the tax increase. “It’s really hard to drive people to the polls to raise their taxes.”

At a minimum, the August date chosen by Nixon shortens the time proponents have to sell the tax increase to voters. Supporters now must hurry the preparation of a list saying where the money will go. It’s easier to sell a tax boost to a community when you can point to a specific bridge, intersection or bus line that would benefit.

“August was a little unexpected to us,” said Jack Cardetti of Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, the group channeling money to pass the tax increase. “(But) it doesn’t change anything fundamentally in the campaign.”

Increasingly sophisticated campaign tactics that draw on Web-based data mining could allow backers of the sales tax to use a fairly large war chest to target a relatively small number of people.

The money the construction industry will pour into the campaign, said political scientist George Connor of Missouri State University, could balance out the difficulty of a rushed summer campaign and a conservative electorate.

He said the pro-tax-boost faction benefits from widespread dissatisfaction in the state with the condition of roads and highways. Although some voters might want to find an alternative to a sales tax, gasoline taxes aren’t much more popular. They pull in less money over time as cars and trucks become more fuel efficient. And the legislature just cut income taxes.

“All you have to do is drive I-70 … to understand there is wide agreement that more money needs to be raised for transportation,” Connor said. “The question is how that balances out when you’ll have so many conservative Republicans voting.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send email to scanon@kcstar.com.

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