Missouri’s transportation tax fight makes for strange political bedfellows

06/15/2014 7:56 PM

06/15/2014 7:56 PM

With less than eight weeks until the August vote, supporters and opponents of Missouri’s proposed $5.3 billion transportation sales tax have spent this month frantically preparing their campaigns.

And trying to recall the names of the other people on their team.

The early debate over the 10-year sales tax plan has deeply scrambled the state’s politics. Longtime friends are at war over the levy, while political enemies have uneasily agreed to work together on the issue.

Pros are chuckling about some of the conflicts, even as they line up for a large campaign payday.

But they also worry the complicated flow chart could make the race tough to handicap, potentially altering the outcome of the Aug. 5 ballot measure to raise more than $5 billion for roads and public transit.

Will Democrats agree with labor and support the tax or join Jay Nixon and oppose it? Will rural Republican businesspeople side with anti-tax groups fighting the state’s largest-ever tax increase, or will they join with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry to back it?

Will the state’s big-city mayors endorse the increase? Every time you raise the state sales tax, after all, it becomes harder to boost it locally.

No one quite knows whom voters will listen to or what they’ll do.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such alliance-crossing,” said Woody Overton, a consultant and a veteran of Missouri politics. “It’s going to be a difficult campaign.”

Gov. Jay Nixon opposes the 3/4 cent sales tax increase, as does the Show-Me Institute, a think tank funded by St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefield. A few weeks ago, Sinquefield called Nixon an idiot.

The AFL-CIO in Kansas City has linked arms with the chamber to back the tax. Earlier this spring, the two sides argued bitterly over a right-to-work law in Missouri.

The liberal Missouri Association for Social Welfare filed a lawsuit against the tax measure last week, alleging its ballot language understates the levy’s impact on the poor. They’re on the same side as the right-leaning Missouri Alliance for Freedom.

Rep. Mike Kelley, a Lamar Republican, voted to put the increase on the ballot, as did Rep. Chris Kelly, a Columbia Democrat. Outgoing GOP House Speaker Tim Jones opposed the tax, as did Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat.

Former Nixon aide and Democrat Jack Cardetti is a leading strategist and spokesman for the tax increase. His colleague: Jewell Patek, a lobbyist with strong ties to former GOP Gov. Matt Blunt.

“This is bed-hopping like I’ve never seen bed-hopping before,” said Kansas City consultant Pat O’Neill, who often works with the Heavy Constructors, a builders’ lobbying group.

Of the two sides, supporters of the tax — many of whom stand to make money from road projects if it passes — seem most organized in the early days of the campaign. Their main committee, Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, raised roughly $700,000 by mid-June, according to reports filed with the state’s Ethics Commission.

Most of the money has come from construction companies and engineering firms. Labor has yet to make significant contributions to the campaign.

That probably will change.

“It would definitely mean jobs for my members,” said Duke Dujakovich, head of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO.

A campaign partner? Missouri Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City who says voters prefer higher sales taxes to raising the gas tax or adding tolls to bridges and highways.

“It’s a huge investment,” he said, but “you have to have something that has a fighting chance.”

Kehoe and Dujakovich are not natural allies. They say that suggests centrist support for the higher levy.

“It crosses party lines. It crosses lines where people would not be in agreement,” Kehoe said. “Voters are going to make an independent judgment on this.”

Cardetti, who helped put Nixon in the governor’s office, agrees. “This is the big solution,” he said. “A lot of people came together.”

Yet some Democrats remain angry that Nixon put the levy on the August ballot. The low-turnout, just-around-the-corner vote may make it even harder for the electorate to sort out conflicting opinions from interest groups and politicians, they said.

“You have to play chess instead of checkers,” Cardetti said.

Early this month, Nixon moved his pieces to the center of the board, criticizing Republicans for trying to raise sales taxes while cutting income taxes.

“Passing secret, sweetheart deals so the well-connected can pay less while asking all Missourians to pay more reflects priorities that are dangerously out of whack,” the Democrat said last week.

He declined to discuss his atypical associates in the anti-tax effort.

Analysts at the conservative Show-Me Institute disagree violently with Nixon’s views on tax cuts, but his views on the transportation tax mirror theirs.

“I’ve never been one to say that just because you disagree with someone on a lot of things you can’t find common ground,” said economist Joseph Miller.

A loose coalition of groups has joined Nixon and the institute opposing the tax. Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions opened for business this month and has not reported initial fundraising. A website — goodroadsformo.org — says the state doesn’t need the tax. Ken Newhouse, a St. Louis-area GOP activist, runs a sparsely funded committee called No MO Sales Tax.

Ryan Johnson runs the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, designed to “protect and grow individual, religious and economic liberty” in the state, according to its Facebook page.

“We actually find ourselves in agreement with Governor Nixon,” Johnson said. “A lot of the points he outlined for his opposition to the sales tax increase are sound.”

The dogs-and-cats-sleeping-together nature of the sales tax campaign has posed challenges for some groups on the left and right in Missouri. Their answer? Hope the thing goes away.

Missouri Club for Growth, typically anti-tax, has declined so far to take a position on the tax, a staff member said.

Ditto for left-leaning Progress Missouri.

“We will be busy,” director Sean Soendker Nicholson said in an email, “and will probably sit this one out. “

The confusion over alliances on the sales tax may have one benefit for many voters, some campaign activists said: They’ll be able to make up their own minds.

Woody Cozad is conservative, anti-tax, a former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party and a former chairman of the Missouri Highway Commission. His position on the levy might be one of the most informed in the entire state.

“This thing,” he said, then hesitated.

“There are arguments on both sides.”

The Star’s Jason Hancock contributed to this report.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com. Twitter:@dhellingkc.

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