The future of Kansas City’s public transportation system rests in the hands of the Missouri General Assembly — a body where taxes and mass transit don’t have an abundance of allies.
That makes some local leaders nervous.
“I have some concerns,” said Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat. “We’re getting late into the session, so it’s time to start doing some arm twisting.”
A proposal to renew a local half-cent sales tax that generates roughly $35 million for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority — more than one-third of its annual budget — teeters in the balance.
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The tax is set to expire at the end of this year unless lawmakers vote to extend it.
Those pushing to renew the tax are confident, and even critics say they expect it to ultimately win approval. But with only four weeks left in the 2015 legislative session, and Republican majorities that aren’t enthusiastic about the idea, proponents take nothing for granted.
“If that tax goes away, it would devastate our public transportation system in Kansas City,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat. “It’s crucial we get this done.”
How devastating? Cindy Baker, spokeswoman for the KCATA, said a budget hit of that size would cause the agency to rethink every aspect of how it operates.
“It would no doubt shrink the system,” Baker said. “Chances are, there would be no weekend and evening service. Suburban routes would be in jeopardy. Everything would be on the table.”
The Missouri General Assembly voted to allow Kansas City and St. Louis to enact a sales tax up to one cent to support public transit in 1971. Since then, both cities passed a half-cent sales tax, which was originally set for review by the General Assembly every two years.
In 2003, lawmakers voted to make the St. Louis sales tax permanent. Kansas City’s, however, was only extended to Dec. 31, 2015.
Legislation sponsored by Curls and McCann Beatty would make Kansas City’s tax permanent.
“Fifty percent of our riders have no other transit options, and 80 percent are going to work and school,” Baker said. “There are pretty dramatic consequences for a community if those people lost access to public transportation. It would have a huge effect.”
The KCATA provides services in Cass, Clay, Jackson, and Platte counties in Missouri; and Johnson, Leavenworth, and Wyandotte counties in Kansas. Baker said that while the sales tax only affects Kansas City, Mo., the impact of its loss would be felt across the region.
“If you reduce the service to a significant degree in Kansas City, it’ll have an effect on the service in, for example, Wyandotte County in Kansas,” she said. “They won’t be able to connect to the Kansas City service if it is drastically reduced.”
The main concern facing legislative advocates of extending the tax, Curls said, is that the Republican-dominated General Assembly views anything that looks like a tax increase with a skeptical eye.
While her bill cleared the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Curls said three Republicans voted no.
“Part of the issue is we have folks around here who don’t like any taxes,” she said. “But this isn’t a tax increase. This tax has been in place since 1971. And it only affects Kansas City. It’s not a statewide tax.”
Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican and chair of the Ways and Means Committee, was one of those who voted against the bill in committee.
“It’s a continuation of a sales tax, and I’m a person who doesn’t like taxes,” Kraus said. “Whenever I can vote against a tax, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The cumulative state sales tax is about 4 percent, Kraus said, but in some parts of Kansas City it is as high as 10 percent.
“Most of the sales tax burden is from the local level,” Kraus said. “We should lower taxes when we can.”
Despite his personal disapproval, Kraus allowed the bill to pass out of his committee, and he expects it to ultimately clear the Senate.
“That bill will pass,” Kraus said. “It’s a local tax, and most of my colleagues will say that if a local government wants to tax themselves, we should let them do that. But I’ll vote no.”
The legislature adjourns for the year May 15, and supporters of the local tax recognize they have no time to spare. Both Curls’ and McCann Beatty’s bills have cleared legislative committees and are expected to be debated by the Senate and House next week, maybe as early as Monday.
Baker remains cautiously optimistic.
“We’re finally starting to see some progress,” she said. “But until it’s a done deal, we’re going to be on high alert.”