June 17, 2014

Put a fairly worded light-rail tax plan on the Kansas City ballot this fall

Elected officials, by attempting to skirt the initiative petition requirements, now face the possible predicament of two transportation tax items facing off on the same ballot.

Over the last seven years, two mayors and a large majority of City Council members have struggled with responses to separate initiative petitions that called for building light-rail systems in Kansas City.

City officials were understandably torn between abiding by laws that require petitions with adequate signatures to appear on ballots and the reality that the proposals were woefully underfunded.

This confusion has cost taxpayers money in legal fees and delayed the inevitable. A settlement is in order.

In late 2007, Mayor Mark Funkhouser and nine other council members repealed an initiative circulated by longtime light-rail supporter Clay Chastain, which voters surprisingly had approved in 2006.

Funkhouser and others had noted that the plan would divert money used to provide bus service. Plus, the system could not have been built as promised because of an insufficient local tax increase included in the ballot language.

Even so, the council should have asked voters to repeal it, rather than pull the plug without a vote of the people.

In 2011, Mayor Sly James and the 12 other council members decided they would not place a followup Chastain light-rail petition on the ballot.

The initiative petition is a legitimate way for citizens to try to demand change from lawmakers, outside the legislative process. That right has been repeatedly perverted by Chastain who, even from his out-of-state address, continues to impose his unfunded dreams on Kansas City.

City officials have reasonably countered that they must be the guardians at the gate, deciding whether an initiative can produce the changes sought, and is properly funded.

In this case, the city kept the initiative off the ballot because of a concern over its lack of adequate financing. Chastain predictably filed a lawsuit that has dragged on for almost three more years.

The latest decision swung partly in Chastain’s favor, with a judge last week saying the issue must go on the ballot but the city may craft the ballot wording.

The decision should be honored. It’s time to give voters the chance to kill this faulty initiative, and hope Chastain keeps his word that this is his last foray into city affairs.

At a meeting today, City Council members should put together fair ballot language for an election this November which clearly spells out for voters the intent of the 2011 initiative petition and how it would be funded.

Then the elected officials who dislike the idea will need to campaign against it. Their best bet to ensure defeat is to point out that the requested sales tax increase would not come close to building the proposed light rail, streetcar and other transit options promoted by the plan.

Chastain also has a choice to make. He already knows the city has no intention of seeking the federal funds and other sources of money that would be required to actually build what he wants. He could refashion the proposal to make it more realistic, in scope and funding. Given the history, however, he’s not likely to step forward with a more reasonable plan.

Placing the citywide light-rail initiative on the November ballot might put it in competition with a streetcar tax favored by James and the council in part of the city, assuming voters in August agree to consider a streetcar expansion.

Elected officials, by attempting to skirt the initiative petition requirements, now face the possible predicament of two transportation tax items facing off on the same ballot.

Had the council authorized a more timely vote on light rail, this pileup wouldn’t be ahead.

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