All hail St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, puppet master of Missouri politics and Kansas City’s possible new overlord.
On Thursday in Jefferson City, Mayor Sly James, City Council member Jolie Justus and a good-size group of public safety and civic leaders will show up for a state Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing.
Their mission is to deflect misguided efforts to kill Kansas City’s 1 percent earnings tax.
James and others are angry and worried that Sinquefield’s minions in the General Assembly this session could help pass a bill that would end the tax within the next two years. That would usurp Kansas Citians’ power to decide how they want to pay for a huge chunk of public services.
City officials will make the good point that Kansas City voters are set to go to the polls on April 5 to consider a five-year tax renewal. Voters in 2011 endorsed a previous extension with a 78 percent majority.
The tax is a huge and crucial part of the city budget, creating $230 million a year, with 70 percent of that used for police and fire protection. Also, the city in recent years has reformed its pension system, cut more than 600 employee positions and boosted citizen satisfaction scores.
Those facts ought to be music to the ears of the GOP-dominated legislature, which purports to be all about local control, belt tightening and the best use of taxpayer funds.
But Sinquefield’s hatred of the earnings tax trumps that good government talk. The retired financial executive has the people in power to throw a genuine scare into Kansas City in 2016.
The Ways and Means Committee chairman is Will Kraus, who is on Sinquefield’s dole through campaign contributions as the Lee’s Summit Republican runs for secretary of state.
And the first proposal to end the tax came from Sen. Kurt Schaefer, who has taken significant contributions from Sinquefield as the Columbia Republican runs for attorney general.
A few weeks ago, Kansas City officials weren’t overly concerned about what might happen in Jefferson City. While House members were seen as anti-earnings tax, the Senate was supposed to be filled with more rational people.
But Senate leaders decided to assign the issues to Kraus’ committee, setting off alarm bells at City Hall. Hence the contingent of police and fire employees going Thursday to Jefferson City, hoping to appeal to Republicans’ professed love of public safety.
“It just frustrates the hell out of me,” says Justus, a former Missouri senator.
Here’s another maddening turn of events.
Kansas City’s boosters are going through this dog and pony show even though they have been playing by the rules Sinquefield set up in 2010 on how to keep the earnings taxes in Kansas City and St. Louis.
At that time, Sinquefield contributed more than $7 million to promote a statewide election that passed, requiring the two cities to ask voters every five years whether they want to renew the tax.
Sinquefield’s cash went to a group called “Let Voters Decide.” The main spokesman for the Sinquefield-controlled group was Marc Ellinger, who repeatedly hammered home this point in 2010: “Contrary to what our opponents are incorrectly telling people, the local voters in those two cities would have the final say on their earnings taxes.”
Except, it turns out, Sinquefield’s legislative lackeys are trying to change the rules after both St. Louis and Kansas City embraced the tax and rebuffed Sinquefield.
As Justus adroitly notes, “He won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
The future of the earnings tax is at stake in the state capital. Kansas City’s political and civic leaders must fight hard to allow local voters to decide its fate.