Government & Politics

Almost no one supports KC’s two strange ballot questions

Clay Chastain
Clay Chastain ALLISON LONG

For voters who don’t pay close attention to city politics, two Kansas City ballot questions Nov. 4 will leave them scratching their heads.

But it’s just another episode in the political theater featuring perennial petitioner and veteran transit activist Clay Chastain.

Not only does the City Council oppose the two Chastain ballot proposals, Chastain opposes them, too.

The questions themselves are short and vague, and there’s no specific purpose for the money spelled out in the ballot language. Yet if approved, they could raise in the neighborhood of $1 billion over the next quarter century.

Question 1 asks whether voters support a quarter-cent sales tax increase for 25 years for capital improvements. Question 2 seeks approval for an eighth-cent sales tax increase for 25 years for public transportation.

“It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t really inform the voters,” Councilman Ed Ford said.

But Ford and others noted this is all a result of a convoluted, three-year battle by Chastain to garner support for a massive light-rail plan.

The city fought his initiative petition effort every step of the way, and the result was something that even Chastain doesn’t support.

“It’s not my light-rail plan anymore, and it’s not the light-rail initiative that 4,000 petition-signers thought they were supporting to go on the ballot,” Chastain said. “They’ve gutted it and taken out the transit plan and just left the taxes, so I can’t advocate for it.”

Back in 2011, Chastain — who lives most of the time in Virginia — launched another in his series of petition-gathering crusades that date to the mid-1990s.

This time, he gathered nearly 4,000 signatures seeking support for a sales tax increase totaling three-eighths of a cent for 25 years. He wanted that money to help pay for a 22-mile light-rail system from Waldo to Kansas City International Airport, a 19-mile commuter rail line from south Kansas City to Union Station, 150 electric shuttle buses, 150 miles of bikeways and an 81/2-mile streetcar line from the Kansas City Zoo to Union Station.

Sounds intriguing, but the City Council refused to put the measure on the ballot in 2011, saying Chastain’s tax increase would not raise nearly enough money to build the system, which was estimated to cost $2.5 billion. Chastain said the rest of the money could come from state, federal and philanthropic sources.

The dispute landed in court, with Jackson County Circuit Judge Sandra Midkiff and the Missouri Court of Appeals siding with the city. Then the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in February that the city had to put Chastain’s proposed tax increases on the ballot — but not his plan for spending the money.

Essentially, the court said Midkiff erred when she declared the proposed ballot language unconstitutional because petitioners aren’t supposed to allocate money. The high court found the proposal as worded did not mandate that the city spend any money, merely raise the money, so it wasn’t unconstitutional.

The court sent the case back to Midkiff, who ordered Kansas City to put the taxes before voters in November.

Chastain has argued the city should act in good faith and state the intended purpose on the ballot, with the money going for light rail. But the City Council voted to put the measure on the ballot as is, saying that was the best way to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

Councilman John Sharp still thinks the city could have made the ballot language clearer, so that voters would know it was originally intended for light rail, although he says he does not personally support Chastain’s light-rail initiative.

“I think whenever you can clarify ballot language so the public knows the real results of their vote, I think that helps democracy,” Sharp said.

Mayor Sly James argued the best way to ensure the city was acting legally was to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling.

In a memo to the council, City Attorney Bill Geary acknowledged that many people think the city should just put something about light rail on the ballot to accommodate Chastain, “and be done with it.” But he didn’t advise that.

“The obligation of the City is to comply with the law,” Geary wrote.

Civic leaders are leaving nothing to chance, and there is an organized campaign against the two questions, although it’s a very low-key, low-budget effort featuring just a few appearances and media interviews.

“It’s a half-baked idea. The use of those taxes is not well thought-out,” said Russ Welsh, immediate past chairman of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the ballot questions.

Campaign spokesman Steve Glorioso said opponents of Chastain’s plan felt obligated to speak out against it, because the one time the city put one of Chastain’s proposals on an election ballot and did nothing to fight it, in 2006, it passed.

That was the only Chastain plan that didn’t include a tax increase. Instead, it would have diverted money from the city’s bus system. After voters approved it, the City Council ended up repealing it in 2007 after many months of trying to figure out how to make it work legally and financially.

This time around, Chastain initially said he would campaign hard for passage but then reversed course and said voter approval would simply give the city a blank check.

“It would not be wise nor right to ask the voters of Kansas City to vote for such a dark election scheme, hoping we could straighten it all out after the vote,” Chastain said.

So what if, by some miracle, the measure passes?

Some council members have said they might try to find a good use for that money, but James said he would argue for not collecting the taxes.

“We need a plan in advance,” James said, “not making it up as we go along.”

Council members said this whole saga is what happens when people sign petitions for ill-conceived plans.

“People signed the petition not knowing what it was all about,” said Councilman Dick Davis, a long-time bus and rail transit supporter. “Whatever we do regarding light rail and the streetcar should be decided by a legislative body. It shouldn’t be decided by a gentleman that stands in front of a grocery store gathering petition signatures.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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