Dave Helling

Could a citizen petition force a vote on a bistate tax for a new Royals stadium?

The ground beneath Kansas City’s endless stadium conversation is shifting. Anyone who loves the idea of taxpayer subsidies for baseball and football — or anyone who hates them — should start paying close attention to the temblors..

We’ll start with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, whose pre-election rejection of a downtown baseball stadium was unequivocal. He compared a downtown stadium to a Maserati. It was a read-my-lips, no-new-taxes moment.

Now, Lucas is driving a different car.

Kansas City can’t foot the bill alone, he says. But serious cash from new Royals owner John Sherman, coupled with a regional funding mechanism, might do the trick.

“If there is an ask of the taxpayers, which I’m assuming there will be ... I would look to something like (a bistate tax) to fund it,” Lucas said last week.

The mayor’s medium-level flip-flop is not a good look for him. Not this early, on something this important.

At the same time, it is not idle chatter. Because, as it turns out, the original bistate machinery that enabled the reconstruction of Union Station is still in place, able to rumble to life if the Royals — and, for that matter, the Chiefs — decide to push for a public vote on new facilities, in downtown or anywhere else.

Surprise: The Bistate Commission that supervised the $118 million renovation of Union Station still exists, even though the first bistate sales tax went away more than 17 years ago.

The commission, which meets once a year, can’t put a stadium measure on the ballot. But laws that could be used for a bistate proposal are still on the books, authorizing a quarter-cent sales tax that could easily raise more than a billion dollars for baseball and football stadium projects.

There is some fine print. A new bistate tax could be used for stadiums, but not just for stadiums — there would have to be an additional cultural component, such as the arts. And just as it was with the first bistate measure, the tax would have to pass in Jackson and Johnson counties to take effect.

But — and this is crucial — politicians don’t have to act. The law allows citizens to put a stadium tax question on the ballot by petition. It would take roughly 14,500 valid signatures in Jackson County and 13,500 in Johnson County to force a vote. That path circumvents county legislators on either side of the state line.

Would it pass? The second bistate measure, which would have raised taxes for the arts and improvements at the Truman Sports Complex, did not. Perhaps the frat boys clamoring for downtown baseball could turn that around. I don’t know.

I do know that taxpayer support for stadiums is as popular now as a blister on Patrick Mahomes’ toe. So there would be work to do.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, remember this: There are ways to put a stadium tax on a regional ballot, and Mayor Quinton Lucas anticipates a vote. The argument over stadium funding, yes or no, will dominate Kansas City politics in the first half of the next decade.

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.