Kansas City Mayor Sly James kicked off what could be his last major campaign Tuesday, an effort to convince Kansas Citians to endorse higher taxes for early education.
Someone left a postcard on every seat in the auditorium, extolling the virtues of pre-kindergarten schooling. "Reduced juvenile crime," the postcard promises. "Smarter workforce." Early education "benefits ALL of Kansas City," the campaign piece says.
Interestingly, there was no mention — front or back — that those benefits will require a sales tax hike of three-eighths of a cent per dollar on every retail purchase, raising $30 million a year.
This was not an accidental omission. James mentioned the tax hike just once in his lengthy prepared remarks. His strategy is clear: Talk about the goodies, not the cost, of the pre-K program.
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It just might work.
Kansas Citians have shown themselves to be happily pro-tax over the years, endorsing a property tax hike for infrastructure, a sales tax increase for the East Side, a sales tax renewal for public projects and a new airport — a project that doesn't require a tax increase, but you get the idea.
And the mayor remains enormously popular. The biggest picture on the campaign postcard isn't the kids the tax would help, or teachers, or schools. It's bow-tied Sly himself, with a quote asking for voters' support.
The pre-K tax isn't a slam-dunk, of course. Some members of the East Side political community don't like the mayor much and may publicly oppose the tax increase as harmful to the poor. They'll point out — correctly — that the regressive Kansas City sales tax is hitting double-digits in some places.
Families with older kids, or none at all, seniors on fixed incomes and young singles will all pay higher taxes at the store.
More importantly, there will be other tax increases on the November ballot. Voters will be asked to approve a gasoline tax increase in Missouri and a property tax increase in Jackson County. Asking voters to cast three straight ballots for higher taxes will be politically challenging to say the least.
That's why it's curious that Tuesday's news conference did not include any current members of the City Council. In fact, James wants to put the increase on the ballot by petition, circumventing the council. That's a pretty obvious thumb in their eyes, particularly since James has complained about government-by-petition for years.
You'd think he would want the City Council's help. Perhaps not.
I'm not betting against the mayor. Few Kansas Citians are likely to argue against additional education for young kids, and the sales tax seems so small. Organized opposition will be hard to find.
Sure, it's a long time between now and November. Mayoral candidates will be asked to weigh in, pro or con, as will council hopefuls. The merits of the tax are also on the table: Remember, the translational health sales tax looked unbeatable, too. Look how that turned out.
Today, though, the odds favor the pre-K sales tax. Behold Sly James alone, a mayor in full.