Comment on Koch involvement in sales tax heats up debate

Comments at a League of Women Voters brown-bag luncheon Tuesday over the 1-cent sales tax have led to rising tensions between proponents and opponents of the tax.

Questions about who was paying for the campaign against the sales tax led to questions about special interest groups and whether the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, which is for the tax, is one of those groups, said Carole Neal, co-president of the League of Women Voters.

Harvey Sorensen, former chairman of the chamber and co-chair of Yes Wichita, which is in favor of the sales tax, was representing Yes Wichita at the luncheon. He said the chamber represents about 1,800 businesses “and so it has a pretty broad-based coalition.”

“Koch Industries is going to spend a million dollars to try to kill the future of our community,” Sorensen said at the event. “And I wonder if you would think that is a special interest. Maybe the ‘noes’ are the real special interest here.”

Koch Industries later issued a statement saying it is “disturbing and disappointing that a fellow Wichitan would make this kind of a statement about our company.”

“Wichita is our hometown,” said Melissa Cohlmia, spokeswoman for Koch. “We have nearly 3,300 employees here, and we are expanding our campus with the potential to add up to 750 more employees in Wichita.

“It’s hard to fathom how Mr. Sorensen could say Koch is trying ‘to kill the future of our community.’”

Sorensen, an attorney with Foulston Siefkin, responded in an interview Wednesday.

“I think our campaign has been very consistent … both about Koch Industries as a community asset and a great company to have in town and about what we believe the significance of this campaign and the yes vote is to the future of the community,” he said, “and I think they have been pretty consistent in saying that a yes vote is not a good thing for the community.

“This is a question about consequences. It’s not about character. I do believe that the consequences of a no vote for our community is very negative. I think it will set us back 10 years or more.”

As for Sorensen’s claim about Koch spending a million dollars, it’s not clear how much the company or its affiliates have contributed to the Coalition for a Better Wichita, which opposes the sales tax. Cohlmia would not address the part of Sorensen’s comment about the amount of money Koch has spent on the campaign.

The brown-bag was one of many forums that have been held in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election. It was attended by at least 70 people, Neal said.

The City Council voted in August to put the sales tax on the Nov. 4 ballot. The tax would expire after five years and is projected to raise nearly $400 million for four projects: expanding an existing water source for a future water supply and to protect against a severe drought, street repair, job development and public transit.

The League of Women Voters endorses the sales tax, Neal said.

“We support three legs and can live with the fourth,” which is the job development fund, she said.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.