Dave Helling

KC voters rejected pre-K plan because facts matter — even more than Sly James’ support

Sly James delivers his final State of the City speech

Kansas City Mayor Sly James reflects on his nearly eight years in office as he gives his last State of the City address at Rockhurst University, his alma mater.
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Kansas City Mayor Sly James reflects on his nearly eight years in office as he gives his last State of the City address at Rockhurst University, his alma mater.

Some in Kansas City will see Tuesday’s overwhelming rejection of a sales tax for the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs as a blot on the legacy of outgoing Mayor Sly James, who led the effort to promote the tax.

I don’t think so. Kansas Citians have shown remarkable faith in their city government over the past eight years, and James will get credit for rebuilding it.

But there are limits to that faith, and they were fully evident in the pre-K vote.

Since James was elected in March 2011, the city’s voters have renewed the 1 percent earnings tax. They extended the property tax levy for indigent health care. They renewed a sales tax for the fire service.

Voters said yes to a huge bond proposal and a higher sales tax for improvements on the East Side. They’ve approved sales taxes for capital improvements. They endorsed a sales tax for transportation.

Kansas Citians helped pass county-wide sales taxes for the zoo and the anti-drug program known as COMBAT.

And, of course, voters overwhelmingly said yes to a new airport terminal.

Kansans Citians like to grumble about the mayor and City Council, but they’ve repeatedly endorsed local spending proposals at the ballot box. They believe in City Hall and in the importance of self-government.

Yet something happened Tuesday when the string came to an end.

There were tactical mistakes in the campaign. When you lose the support of every school district within the city, passing a school-related tax hike becomes substantially more difficult.

But the mayor also made a fundamental error. At the end of his term, he may have mistakenly thought voter faith in City Hall really meant faith in him.

You can find people, for example, who think James was the reason voters supported a new Kansas City International Airport terminal. L’état, c’est Sly.

But Kansas Citians don’t cast their ballots that way. They endorse initiatives when they think programs are needed, the funding mechanisms are fair, and City Hall can be trusted to spend the money wisely.

The pre-K sales tax failed on all three counts. School districts said they didn’t need the tax to improve pre-K education. The sales tax, now more than 9 percent, hurts the poor. And the oversight mechanism was confusing.

James likely thought he could overcome those objections through hard work and an outsized personality. But personalities and bully pulpits alone don’t win tax and spending elections. Facts matter to voters.

Supporters of the pre-K tax likely will try again, perhaps with a different oversight model or a different tax mechanism. It’s possible voters in some future election will reach a different decision than the one they delivered Tuesday.

If so, it will be because voters believe such a program is worth their time and money and not because Mayor James — or any other politician — is leading the parade.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.
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