Good (and bad) tax ideas keep local voters very busy

05/21/2014 5:51 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Politicians and civic leaders spend countless hours — and special interest groups spend millions of dollars — trying to answer this vexing, all-important question:

Why do voters approve some tax increases and not others?

Looking back at 25 years worth of tax issues in the Kansas City area, I offer this concrete response: It depends.

We will see this conundrum play out over the next six months, when plenty of time and money will go into passing — or defeating — at least three plans.

One is the statewide sales tax increase for transportation in Missouri.

Another is the sales tax boost backed by supporters of a bigger Kansas City streetcar system.

The third is the renewal of a sales tax to employ firefighters and buy new equipment for the Kansas City Fire Department.

Some people will see benefits in voting for all three. Others will pick and choose, depending on their personal finances or how much they think they will directly benefit.

And still others — a sizable chunk in the middle, the ones that many campaign ads are aimed at — will waver until the last minute before making their decisions.

People in cities on both sides of the state line have lots of practice dealing with proposals to boost public spending on schools, roads and regional attractions such as the Truman Sports Complex.

And despite constant push-back from anti-tax groups, the recent recession and the mantra that lower taxes are better for everyone, the great majority of these issues have been approved.

For the most part, people in this region are willing to endorse ways to create what they see as better futures for their communities.

Truly worthwhile ideas — the 2011 Kansas City Zoo tax in Jackson and Clay counties is a good example — can sail through.

Proposals to impose higher taxes in already heavily burdened communities also can be approved, as Wyandotte County voters did in 2010 in boosting public safety and neighborhood upgrades.

Finally, questionable plans that are not worth the public’s support also can achieve victory. These include the 2001 sales tax for hiring more Kansas City firefighters and the 2004 city bond issue for a Liberty Memorial museum that private sources should have financed.

Yet issues also still get defeated in this region. For example:

Ideas can have plenty of merit and suffer the sting of defeat, such as a 1993 neighborhood improvement plan for Kansas City and the 2006 Missouri cigarette tax increase to help fund smoking prevention and health care programs.

Proposals that are supposed to be in the wheelhouse of certain voting blocs — let’s build new soccer fields for Johnson County’s kids in 2006 — can lose.

Plans that don’t justify local public revenue because other funding is more appropriate can be killed, such as a 1999 flood-control tax in Kansas City or the 2013 medical research tax in Jackson County.

There are similarities among many issues embraced by voters. They often highlight repairing basic infrastructure, investing in children and backing public safety.

But there are outliers as well. The “basic” flood control and neighborhood packages went down to defeat, as did the child-friendly soccer complex. Voters also have defeated spending plans in the Liberty and Park Hill school districts.

Looking ahead, many already are questioning the proposed tax hikes for transportation in Missouri and Kansas City’s streetcars. At this point, it’s hard to predict a trouncing or victory for either one.

Only one thing is certain. Local voters will see a lot more tax-related issues on their ballots in 2015 and long into the future.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. He appears on “Ruckus” at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on KCPT.

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