Dave Helling | Past proves tax hikes aren’t automatic

Dave Helling
Dave Helling

A popular first-term Kansas City mayor looks around and sees troubling signs of decay.

Crumbling streets and bridges. Crime. Too few good-quality jobs.

His answer? Higher taxes.

It sounds like Sly James, but of course it isn’t. It’s then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who helped put two tax increases on the ballot in August 1991 — a half-cent sales tax bump for city operations and maintenance, and a property tax increase to help build an ill-fated jet aircraft plant near KCI.

Voters crushed both tax hikes. They rendered the same judgment two years later, when the City Council floated a different tax increase called Odyssey 2000.

You may have noticed James is inching toward a similar tax increase vote this year. And he may want to review those earlier verdicts if he wants to avoid a similar outcome.

Lesson one: For the most part, Kansas Citians are OK with higher taxes. Voters have approved capital improvement taxes, public safety taxes, hotel-motel-restaurant tax hikes, a car rental tax increase, and helped provide the winning margin for the sports complex, Union Station renovation, and anti-drug sales taxes (not to mention the light rail sales tax the council later discarded.)

But voters also want some specificity. What will the money go for? Will the tax eventually go away — or do we get a chance to renew it? And, most crucially, have you considered alternatives to taking more money from our pockets?

It’s this last question that may cause James and the council some indigestion as an August election gets closer. Over the last several weeks, some community leaders have quietly suggested the city re-examine proposals to sell or lease all or parts of some assets — the water utility and the airport are sometimes mentioned — as a way to raise cash for infrastructure repairs, instead of raising taxes.

Council members have summarily rejected those overtures with little public debate. Too complicated, they say, and too expensive. Maybe illegal. Labor won’t like it.

It isn’t clear if those claims are valid. What is clear is that at least


voters will want to make sure asset sales are either seriously unwise or impossible before they fork over hundreds of millions of additional tax dollars.

It should at least be discussed.

Answering voters’ concerns should be easier than it was in the 1990s, when there was an organized, focused anti-tax movement in Kansas City. Most tax measures today face little serious formal opposition before voters make their choices.

But those 1990s results — which came amid a recession, by the way — also prove tax hikes aren’t automatic, no matter how persuasive James thinks he is.

Cleaver gave a pretty good speech, too.