KANSAS CITY — Missouri lawmakers might take a look next year at making it harder for activists with deep pockets to pour millions of dollars into statewide initiative petition campaigns.
For instance, Rex Sinquefield has sunk $6.8 million into an effort to repeal the 1 percent earnings tax in Kansas City and St. Louis. He’s expected to spend millions more.
Political and business leaders in both cities are grumbling about Sinquefield’s generosity, which they are struggling to match. And some lawmakers are listening.
“Legislators in Kansas City and St. Louis are locked in on this,” said Missouri Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat.
First Amendment rights are important, she added, “but at the same time, we don’t want a special interest who has a big enough pocketbook to be able, on their own, to change the law.”
Sinquefield did not respond to several requests for an interview, but a spokesman for the earnings-tax petition committee made no apologies for the St. Louis businessman’s massive financial support. He’s known for his commitment to free-market and libertarian issues, including abolishing the state income tax.
“We’re very fortunate to have a person who’s passionate about the (earnings tax) issue,” said Marc Ellinger, spokesman for Let Voters Decide. “It’s a big state, and it’s hard to get a message out. … We have the opportunity to do so.”
Sinquefield, who wrote the committee a check for more than $2.5 million in mid-June, is virtually the only source of cash for Let Voters Decide, records show.
So far, most of his money has gone for gathering petitions, not for campaign ads or strategy. In fact, the earnings-tax measure isn’t even officially on the ballot yet — the secretary of state’s office must first review more than 200,000 petition signatures and rule on their validity in late July or early August.
If enough petitions are valid, the state’s voters will decide in November if Kansas City and St. Louis must hold a referendum every five years, starting in 2011, on renewing the levy. If local voters ever revoke the tax, it can’t come back.
Labor groups, businesses and officeholders that support the earnings tax are trying to raise money for an expected campaign. Their committee, United for Missouri’s Priorities, has raised a little more than $283,000.
Kansas City Councilwoman Cindy Circo said earnings-tax supporters were afraid they would be outgunned this fall.
“There’s a real sense of desperation,” Circo said. “It’s not too strong a word.”
Ed Bender, director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said earnings-tax supporters were worried for a reason. His group recently found that millionaires who spend their money on campaigns for an office often fail, but they’re more successful when spending on high-profile issue campaigns.
“The difference being, it is a single issue,” Bender explained, “often a hot-button issue that can ignite the passions of the people.”
Any legislative attempt to rein in issue campaign contributions will meet fierce resistance, said Don Watkins of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian think tank.
“The basic idea behind these complaints is, instead of speech being free, it should be equal,” Watkins said. “But leveling the playing field means shutting some people up. … The government’s going to take away his audience and give me an audience I didn’t earn. That is outrageous.”
Complaints about issue campaign spending in Missouri aren’t new. In 2006, opponents of embryonic stem cell research were sharply critical of Jim and Virginia Stowers of Kansas City, who had given roughly $27 million by the end of that year to a committee that supported an initiative protecting that research.
Sandra Aust, who helped run the campaign in support of the research, said those contributions were critical — and proper.
“In our country, under our current laws, people have the right … to fund the campaigns and issues about which they feel strongly,” Aust said. “That’s our system, like it or not.”
Local officials don’t necessarily like it but acknowledge the General Assembly won’t be able to change the campaign spending rules before November’s election.
They also think that the measure will be on the ballot and that spending a lot of money to defeat the proposal statewide may be counterproductive. Instead, they’ll raise money for the local referenda in Kansas City and St. Louis next year.
“We can’t waste everything we’ve got on a state race,” said Pat Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, which opposes the ballot measure.
Pam Whiting, spokeswoman for the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, agreed “there is a great deal of concern” that abolishing the earnings tax could be devastating to municipal government’s budget and financial stability. The tax provides Kansas City with about $200 million a year.
Whiting said the chamber and other civic leaders were formulating their strategy on fighting the proposed ballot measure.
Another group opposing the measure is Missouri Jobs With Justice, an economic justice advocacy group. Its director, Lara Granich, said it was too soon to get discouraged about the vast wealth Sinquefield could pour into his campaign.
“There’s plenty of innings left in this game,” Granich said, adding that a number of prominent civic groups and other organizations were aligning to fight the initiative, not just in Kansas City and St. Louis.
Among them is the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, based in Columbia. The group advocates on behalf of 5,600 farmers and rural families.
Program manager Rhonda Perry said people shouldn’t assume that rural Missouri residents would automatically vote to abolish the earnings tax in Kansas City and St. Louis — especially when they found out it was a campaign largely paid for by one man, which she said was the opposite of populism.