Mo. group petitions to end city earnings tax

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The ice beneath Kansas City's decades-old earnings tax continues to crack.

Let Voters Decide — a committee working to repeal the levy here and in St. Louis — submitted 210,000 petition signatures to election officials this week, twice the number needed to force a statewide vote that could eventually end the tax in Missouri.

"Everywhere we went for signatures we were getting great support," said Marc Ellinger, a committee spokesman. "People really wanted to sign this."

Many Kansas City officials had urged voters not to sign the petition. The 1 percent tax on the incomes of people living and working in the city raises more than $200 million each year for police and fire protection, snow removal and other city functions.

Those officials reacted with frustration when informed that earnings tax opponents — led by wealthy St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield — had apparently cleared the first hurdle in their campaign against the tax.

"We worked really hard to stop this thing," said council member Cindy Circo, who worked with St. Louis politicians against the petition drive. "It's really disappointing that there are people out there that want to see us fail."

The secretary of state's office, which received the petitions, will now ask local election officials to verify the signatures, a process that could take until late July.

But almost everyone thinks the committee has gathered at least 100,000 verified signatures from two-thirds of the state's congressional districts, the threshold required to put the tax on November's ballot.

"We will do our best to defeat it," Mayor Mark Funkhouser said in a statement.

Elected officials in Kansas City and St. Louis worry that Sinquefield — who poured $1.75 million into the petition drive — will spend millions more persuading voters to approve repealing the earnings tax. Union officials also are concerned.

"Missourians should be alarmed that a billionaire who only recently moved to our state has gathered enough signatures to put on the ballot an initiative that will force massive cuts in police and fire protection, and increases in sales and property taxes," said Tom Kelley, president of the Missouri State Council of Firefighters.

Sinquefield was not available for comment Tuesday.

Let Voters Decide paid a private company more than $575,000 to gather petition signatures.

City officials also are worried voters outside Kansas City and St. Louis will support the repeal measure because it would bar any other city from ever imposing the tax.

"This is going to be seen as an... anti-tax thing," said political consultant Patrick Tuohey, who supports repeal. "I think it'll play very well... with the people most likely to show up at the polls this November."

Even Funkhouser — who has wavered slightly in his views on the levy — suggested that the city should prepare for a day without the $200 million in annual earnings tax revenue.

"There may be a long-term strategy that weans us from the E-tax," his statement said. Some argue the earnings tax provides regional support for such amenities as the zoo and city parks because roughly 40 percent of the tax, according to some estimates, is paid by people living outside city limits.

Council member Deb Hermann, chairwoman of the Finance and Audit Committee, said the city has tried in vain to find different funding sources for the earnings tax.

"We've looked at alternatives for that funding and they just really aren't there," she said. "We've got to fight to fund basic services."

City Attorney Galen Beaufort said he was not aware of any lawsuit against the ballot measure, but he added, "I am absolutely certain that if the petitions are turned in today, that our office will be asked to look at a possible legal challenge."

Others discounted a possible lawsuit, however, predicting the next battle would come at the polls.

"We intend to continue working to ensure that this vital source of city general fund revenue remains intact," the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City said in a joint statement.